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Communications and Agricultural Education

Communications and Agricultural Education

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A Wildcat in the Whitehouse

by Clint Blaes

A Wildcat in the White House College of Agriculture graduate helps plan key events for President, First Lady

Like many young College of Agriculture graduates, Justine Sterling hustles into the office early, working hard to clean her desk and take on new challenges. But Sterling’s job is a little different than most, and her desk is in a noteworthy location: 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. As the staff assistant in the White House Social Office, Sterling has a close-up view on all social events of President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.

Landing the Job

After graduating from K-State in May 2007, Sterling accepted an internship in the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, where she helped with the White House’s relations between state and local governments. “I was kind of nervous to take an unpaid internship the summer after I graduated from college,” Sterling says, “but I thought it would be a good opportunity.” Her interest in the position stemmed from an experience she had in summer 2006, interning in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Communications. “I met a lot of young, successful political appointees when I was at USDA,” she says. “One of them in particular, Matt Shilling, became a mentor to me. He had interned at the White House, which was how he got started working in Washington, D.C. He got me interested, and I met with him several times to talk about the possibility of an internship.”

Shilling encouraged Sterling to apply and wrote a recommendation letter for her. During her summer internship, she began looking for a full-time job to start in the fall. Again, having contacts within the administration paid off. “It’s all very word-of-mouth when it comes to finding jobs out here,” Sterling says. “At the end of the summer, when I started looking for jobs, my bosses in Intergovernmental Affairs were kind enough to put the word out that I was looking.” Sterling says she applied with several different agencies, including the Departments of Agriculture, Education and Homeland Security. She also interviewed with several offices in the White House, but she was most interested in a position with the Social Office. Sterling first interviewed for a temporary position in that office, helping with White House holiday events. “We had 26 parties last Christmas,” she says. “So, we hire another full-time person from October to January.” During the process of interviewing and preparing to accept that position, a full-time job came open in the Social Office, for which she was eventually hired. She began in September, just weeks after her internship ended.

Behind the Scenes

The White House hosts hundreds of events every year, and it takes an army of people to make those events happen, Sterling says. But just five people staff the Social Office, which coordinates most of these events. This makes her job all the more exciting. “I’ve never been bored once since I started,” she says. Part of Sterling’s job is keeping track of all the tasks for an event and who is in charge of each one. “Our task sheets go out to everyone involved in the event,” she says, “including the Usher’s Office, the photographers and the calligraphers. It keeps everyone in the loop about each event.” Sterling also helps coordinate the photo receiving lines, seat cards and entertainment for events. Her role in coordinating entertainment has allowed her to meet some well-known people outside of the political world.

“For the annual Governors’ Dinner this year, which all of the governors and their spouses attend, we had Vince Gill and Amy Grant perform. My role is to coordinate all of their travel and logistics for the event, including rehearsal time and the length of the performance. It’s definitely one of my favorite parts of the job.” Although she didn’t get to meet him, Sterling was in the crowd just yards away from Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to the White House in April. That day, she was assisting opera singer Kathleen Battle, who sang the Lord’s Prayer during the arrival ceremony. “Just being there in person, standing on the South Lawn listening to Pope Benedict and President Bush speak, was an incredible and very surreal experience.” “ Some people say that your college experience is not as important as the skills you learn in the ‘real world,’ but I think both are extremely necessary." — Justine Sterling, College of Agriculture alumna

Applying her Knowledge

Most of her fellow staff members are surprised to find out that Sterling’s degree is in agricultural communications and journalism. “Everyone says ‘Wow, how did you get into your position with a major like that?’” she says. “But, I really have used those skills that I learned. From editing sequences and guest lists to drafting correspondence on behalf of the Social Secretary, I have used every single class I had to take in journalism.” As far as her agriculture background is concerned, Sterling is one of the very few employees at the White House who grew up on a farm. They all find it amusing that a Kansas girl who grew up on a farm now works in the Social Office for Mrs. Bush. But it does add a different perspective.” Like many college students, Sterling says while she was at K-State, she worried a lot about if she was in the right major. Now, she has discovered that it is more about the classes she took and the skills that she learned than what degree she completed.

College experiences, she says, continue to play a big role in her experience at the White House. While at K-State, Sterling worked in the College of Agriculture Academic Programs Office as a student assistant to Jackie McClaskey, assistant dean. Sterling says serving in this detail-oriented, organizational role helped prepare her for the job, as she currently serves as the assistant to the White House Social Secretary, Amy Zantzinger. “Everyone joked about how much Jackie depended on me,” she says, “but that really helped prepare me for this role as Amy’s assistant.” Overall, she says, her K-State experience prepared her well for her job. “My job in college, my experiences in college – including FFA, Blue Key and College of Agriculture Ambassadors – have helped incredibly. Some people say that your college experience is not as important as the skills you learn in the ‘real world,’ but I think both are extremely necessary.”

Life in the Fast Lane

Along with all of the opportunities that Sterling has had, there are a few tradeoffs to working at the White House, Sterling says. “We do work long hours, as there are a multitude of events and we are a small office,” she says. “We don’t typically take lunch breaks, because it is more of a hassle to go in and out of security.” She also frequently works late nights and weekends, as the majority of events and dinners take place outside of normal business hours. Sterling says she loves her job; however, she knows it won’t last forever. A new President will be inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2009, which will also be Sterling’s last day in the White House. “I knew that when I took the job,” she says, “but the experience is worth it.” Sterling says she will be working right up to the last minute, as President and Mrs. Bush will host a coffee the morning of the inauguration, which her office will coordinate. After leaving the White House, Sterling plans to continue event planning, hopefully back in the agricultural industry. “Things fall into place,” she says. “I wish I would have known that my senior year of college. I was really worried about taking that unpaid internship, but thank goodness I did, or I wouldn’t be working here today.”

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