Student spends semester interning for Michelle Obama’s office
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A simple Google search turned into a once-in-a-lifetime internship for senior Kiah Duggins.
Last March, she searched “How to intern for Michelle Obama” and White House internship applications came up. So, she applied.
The application required writing several short essays. In addition, she had to create and write a policy memorandum and send it to Eric Waldo, a member of Michelle Obama’s team. Duggins’ memorandum involved creating more programs to get marginalized students to pursue higher education.
She applied for the summer internship, but did not get it. When she applied for the fall internship, August through December, she got it.
Duggins worked in Michelle Obama’s Washington D.C. office as a policy intern. Her immediate supervisor was the associate policy director for the first lady, who reported to the director.
“I worked the most closely with her ‘Let Girls Learn’ campaign, which seeks to expand secondary education opportunities for girls in developing countries,” Duggins said. “I did a lot of work doing the preliminary research of and collaboration with Let Girls Learn stakeholders.”
In addition, she helped with the former first lady’s research and mentoring initiative.
“She mentors high school girls in the DMV (D.C., Maryland, Virginia) area, so I helped with the coordination with the events and stuff that the girls would do,” Duggins said.
Duggins also helped with several holiday parties, including the Christmas, the Hanukah, the Halloween parties and the annual turkey pardoning, where President Obama became known for making several “Dad jokes” while daughters Malia and Sasha stood by laughing.
Duggins received six academic credit hours for her internship. She took the 481 co-op class through Wichita State’s Honors College. That class involved writing journals and a research paper. She also took an economics class online.
Her internship was unpaid, but she had to pay living expenses for an apartment two metro stops away from the White House. Financial aide Duggins earned from WSU paid for her residency.
Interaction with the first family
She saw Michelle Obama multiple times per week. Duggins would help at events where Mrs. Obama was speaking and would get to see and hear from her at those events.
The one time Duggins got to speak to the first lady was when she got to take a picture with her.
“She is exactly what you would imagine her to be,” Duggins said. “She is very warm, very open; she tries very hard to remember everybody’s names. She gives hugs to everyone. She is very authentic and genuine, just how you would see her on TV. It’s not an act.”
In December, Duggins posted a picture of her with Michelle Obama on her Facebook page. It quickly became a popular post, garnering 588 likes and more than 30 comments.
Her interactions with President Obama were not as frequent, but certainly just as memorable. The President spoke to all of the interns as a group. Duggins saw him at several events.
Her claim to fame with President Obama came during the holiday party. All of the guests had cleared out and the interns were still wrapping things up.
“He turned to me and two of the other interns and said, ‘Good job’ and gave us a thumbs up before he walked out,” she said. “I take that as my one-on-one interaction with the president.”
Duggins is a black woman and the daughter of an immigrant.
“It was an honor to be able to work in the White House and not only work in the White House, but work under the first black president, which would not have been possible through most of America’s history,” she said.
The biggest event during Duggins’ time in the White House was the general election to select the next president. She said she saw the best and what she considered not the best of America during the election.
“It was interesting to me the person elected to office is very openly racist, very openly xenophobic and very openly misogynistic,” she said. “Those three isms that our current president represents could prevent people like me from having the opportunities that I had.”
Her biggest takeaway: America has come a long way, but it still has a long way to go.
“I think it was really interesting to be there at that point in history to see the first black president get replaced by somebody who is very openly racist,” Duggins said. “There was a lot of cognitive dissonance there.”
During her last few weeks in the White House, she observed the Obama administration working to ensure a peaceful transition for his successor. She saw no drama or chaos, but rather saw White House staff bucking down and working hard to make sure the transition was as smooth as possible.
“It was a very diplomatic attitude in the White House,” she said.
Duggins is not sure she will work in politics. Her internship certainly inspired her to be more interested in public policy.
“It showed me all of the great things policy can do, so it did make me more interested in that,” Duggins said.
She plans to start law school in the fall of 2018 to study human rights law or civil rights law. Right now, Duggins is applying for different opportunities to do during her gap year.
She is looking into public policy fellowships, legal fellowships, service fellowships abroad and more. She will take a break from academics before law school.
“I really want to dive into the subjects that I’m interested in and make sure that’s what I’m interested in and make sure that’s what I want to do and also get some experience before I apply for law school,” she said.
Duggins is grateful for her experience in D.C. and even more so to President and Mrs. Obama.
“The Obamas themselves as people were very welcoming, very warm, very nice, very open, thoughtful, obviously intelligent people,” she said. “I just want everybody to know that’s not just some ideal that people have or an idea that they get from TV, that’s real. All of the good things you’ve heard about them are very real. I just appreciate their service to our country.”