By Lisa Curtis ’10 (above, second from left)
Diaries often seem too time consuming and blogging too public. Instead, for the past three years, I’ve written about my favorite part of the day on a small wall calendar.
During the summer of 2009 I filled those little calendar boxes with notes about my experiences as an intern in the White House Office of Political Affairs. Looking back now, many of the things I’ve experienced seem still seem too good to be true.
June 4: The day of the political affairs staff retreat, I found myself sitting with my back to the door. I was so engrossed in reading the day’s reports that I neglected to notice when the rest of the office staff suddenly stood up. I turned around to twinkling blue eyes and a booming voice asking, “So you’re not going to stand up for the vice president of the United States?” I jumped up, apologizing profusely to Vice President Joe Biden who laughed and patted me on the back.
May 26: I watched then Judge Sonia Sotomayor make history, becoming the first Latina to be nominated to the Supreme Court. Afterwards, I saw her in the rest room and congratulated her. She told me such a compelling story about her mother’s role in motivating her that I started crying. Immediately after work I called my own mother to thank her.
June 25: This day jumps out. It’s the day when the White House invited all of the members of Congress to the South Lawn for a luau. After alternately staffing the buffet table and playing with giant beach balls, I found myself next to President Barack Obama. Wanting to do something different, I started speaking to him in Swahili. He replied in Swahili and then switched to English, asking me if I had spent time in Kenya. I told him that I had and that I had promised everyone there I would test his Swahili if I ever got a chance. He laughed and told me that was cool.
These days and moments were special, and they will become memories that I will cherish for the rest of my life. But what these stories don’t tell and what a small calendar box could never convey is the true honor it was to serve this country.
Although “serving the country” often has a military connotation, this administration has emphasized that everyone — from a housewife in rural Missouri delivering food to a homeless shelter to the president of the most powerful country in the world — is playing an equally important role in serving America. As First Lady Michelle Obama said during her speech to all the interns, “If I had one goal during this term, it would be to revitalize the spirit of public service in every American.” Turning to the awe-struck interns sitting before her, she told us, “All of you are in line to lead whatever kind of life you want. Always look to pull somebody else along with you. If you are not reaching back and pulling other people along, then you are a waste of space.”
Now that I’m back at Whitman, sitting in the grass on Ankeny and watching first-years throw Frisbees, the first lady’s words keep echoing in my head. This is the year of that dreaded, repetitive question asked by everyone from my parents to the woman sitting next to me on the plane, “So, what are you going to do with your life?”
I haven’t a clue. But I know that I intend to pursue the issue I love — working to change the way we produce energy and who has access to it. Through my classes and environmental activism at Whitman I’ve learned a lot about the ecological and social problems our world is facing. Although the work I did at the White House — mostly writing political briefings and memos for the president, vice president and first lady — wasn’t directly related to anything I’d done before, it gave me a much clearer idea of how our political system can be used as a tool to fix those problems.
This year I’m excited to serve as Whitman’s new sustainability coordinator, helping to ensure that our college does its part in the global effort to leave our children with a livable planet. I am also looking forward to serving as the U.N. Environment Programme’s Tunza Youth Advisor for North America, a position I hope will allow me to influence international environmental policy.
Each one of us has the ability to take President Obama’s call to service and make it a priority in our own lives, simply by working on the issues that we care about. I have no doubt that even though I’m no longer working 12-hour days at the White House, I will stay busy at Whitman and will fill my calendar with memorable moments.
Lisa Curtis is a senior politics/environmental studies major from Alameda, Calif. She loves the idealism that Whitman inspires and strongly believes that Whitman students are going to change the world. She is so impressed that so many are already doing it.