Sarah Berlenbach: Recent grad on White House internship

Sarah Berlenbach

New alum Sarah Berlenbach ’11 got an exciting opportunity to intern at the White House in January, just after her graduation last December. Until May 4, she will work in the Office of Digital Strategy, helping to relay the administration’s messages through digital media, such as the White House blog and social media outlets. Though she received a degree in political science, she says UNC’s liberal arts focus and variety curriculum inspired her to explore other disciplines as well, including psychology and public policy.  She responded to an email interview about her internship and how Carolina helped her, including studying with Richard J. Richardson Distinguished Professor of Political Science Frank Baumgartner.

Q: How did you find out about this internship? How did you prepare for it?

A: Early in my undergraduate career, I found information about the White House Internship Program online as I was exploring internship options, but I was not prepared to apply at the time. This past summer – during my two-month fellowship with the President’s re-election campaign [in New York City] – I became friends with an alumna of the White House Internship Program. She told me about her experience at the White House and encouraged me to apply, which I did shortly thereafter….

Over the course of my undergraduate career, I indirectly prepared by immersing myself in extracurricular and co-curricular activities that I was passionate about – including my enrollment in the Buckley Public Service Scholars and the Carolina Research Scholars Programs, serving as a T-Link Transfer Mentor, writing for Blue & White Magazine as a politics blogger and interning as a community and campus organizer for President Obama’s re-election campaign at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Q: What interests you about the Office of Digital Strategy? Why did that attract you?

A: In an effort to strengthen the President’s commitment to maintaining “the most open and accessible administration in American history,” the Office of Digital Strategy seeks to cultivate a relationship with the American public by maintaining an open line of communication through the White House’s online presence. The Office of Digital Strategy appeals to my interest in fostering civic engagement – digital media is a remarkably powerful tool for connecting the Administration to the American people, and making the White House the people’s house regardless of one’s proximity to Washington.

Q: What is the major focus and duration of your internship? What is a typical day like for you?

A: While the overarching objectives are consistent in daily operations, no two days have been the same. Some recurrent tasks including writing, copy editing; planning and staffing TweetUp events in which we welcome Twitter users from across the country to the White House; and doing research for various interdepartmental projects. Outside of my particular office, I frequently participate in programming designed specifically for interns, including a weekly speaker series and a biweekly group service project at Iona Senior Services in Washington, D.C.

Q: Can you share anything memorable that you’ve done, or is there something you do as part of the internship that excites you?

A: My most memorable moments as an intern have been the instances when I was able to interact with people from across the country and help facilitate their visit to the White House. During the payroll tax cut debate, the Office of Digital Strategy launched a campaign to find out what forty dollars per paycheck – the amount of money at stake for the average American – means to people across the country. Shortly thereafter, some of these individuals who generously shared their stories were invited to the White House to hear President Obama deliver remarks. Some of these people were surprised with an unexpected meet-and-greet with the President himself. Speaking with these individuals afterwards, my faith in the concept of wholesome democracy and the spirit of the American people was revitalized.

Q: Have you encountered any challenges with this internship? What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned about the power of this form of communication?

A: Like most new jobs and internships, it was initially challenging to navigate the dynamic of my new workplace. The learning curve was steep, but I quickly learned how effective digital communication is in reaching millions of Americans who may have otherwise felt disconnected from the White House, as well as my personal role in the Administration’s pursuit to understand what issues matter most to Americans.

Q: How do you think your experiences at UNC, particularly the political science department in the College or Frank Baumgartner, have helped you with this?

A: I graduated from UNC as a more diligent student, a more engaged community member and a more passionate individual. I thrived both academically and personally as a student in a community of bright, dedicated individuals – professors and fellow students alike – where individuality, ingenuity and involvement are fostered. I distinguish my Carolina experience by my involvement in many of the University’s extracurricular opportunities as well as the engaging and thought-provoking courses that I took, some of which deeply affected my future career plans. The capstone of my education was my involvement in research within the political science department through an independent study (POLI196) under the direction of Professor Frank Baumgartner, my faculty supervisor, which afforded me the opportunity to analyze the intrastate geographic disparities within the institution of capital punishment in the United States outside of the archetypal classroom setting. Each of my experiences at UNC prepared me in a unique way to serve the President and work alongside a diverse group of dedicated and talented individuals, and I know that my education will continue to serve me throughout my career and lifetime.

Q: Have you been able to meet the President or have any interactions with him?

A: Two days after submitting my application to the White House Internship Program in September, I had the unique privilege of meeting President Obama at North Carolina State University. Since serving as an intern, I have watched the President land on the South Lawn of the White House in Marine One and attended the United Kingdom Official Arrival Ceremony during which President Obama and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron gave remarks, as well as other events in which the President delivered statements.

Q: What’s next on the horizon for you?

A: Following my internship, I hope to join President Obama’s re-election campaign as a field organizer. Thereafter, I plan to continue my career in politics and public service, and am considering law school.

[ Interview by Kristen Chavez ’13 ]