During the early days of my career I was pretty clueless about how to build a career and followed an especially random path. I grew up as an expatriate kid in Bangkok, Thailand where my parents were both teachers. My dad did community development training for the Thai government and my mom taught at the International School of Bangkok where I went to school through the 12th grade. Bangkok was an awesome place to grow up; many of my closest friends in the world are still the ones I made there.
By the time I graduated from high school I knew a lot about the world, but not much about the working world, and not very much about living in the States. I looked and sounded American, but I’d never really lived in the U.S. American slang sometimes got the better of me. I remember my first summer back in the U.S. – in Missouri – I got a part-time lifeguard job at a local swimming pool. Before reporting to work on the first day, I asked the pool supervisor over the phone if there was anything special I might need for the first day of work. She replied, “Just your swim trunks and plenty of elbow grease.” Assuming that “elbow grease” was some kind of special suntan lotion for lifeguards, I proceeded directly to the nearest Wal-Mart where I searched relentlessly up and down the aisles until finally a sales associate asked, “Young man, can I help you?” When I told her I was searching for “elbow grease” she looked at me like I was a mental patient. I was a little bit lost, to say the least.
As I headed off to my freshman year of college, my disorientation continued from there. Over the next 4.5 years, I transferred colleges seven times. I wound up attending schools in Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, Hawaii, and Guam. Finding a college where I could fit in was a real struggle for me. I had moved around so much; it was really hard to know where I belonged.
After all that, I was frazzled. I felt like I needed to get away from it all. So, I packed up my gear and headed back to Guam to be a scuba instructor. This was about as far away from the typical office setting as you can imagine. In fact, I remember flying into Guam a flight attendant remarked to me how beautiful the water looked from the air. I explained to her with a smile, “I know. That’s my office.” I went from school, to a school of fish.
I wound up diving on Guam for the next three years. My hair grew out into this giant sun bleached crown of curls, and I rarely wore shoes. I literally spent thousands of hours underwater with the fish and the octopuses and the puffer fish and the turtles. It wound up being thousands of hours of therapy.
By the time I was 24, I started to get my bearings. Getting through college had been so hard for me, I felt like I needed to do something to show for it. Spending hours under the sea was fun, but I was restless to use my brain. So, I thought to myself, “Where would be the most prestigious, respectable place I could work?” My answer: The White House.
I had always loved politics and public service. But, as a salty dog on the sea, I had no idea how I might get to the White House. It was literally on the other side of the Earth. This was in the mid-90s, when the Internet was just starting to get off the ground. Information online was still scarce…and Guam was far, far way.
So, I sat down and wrote a letter. Something along the lines of “Dear White House, how can I come help out?” I slapped a stamp on it, drove my beat-up green Suzuki Samurai to the Guam post office, put it in the mail, and figured I’d never hear back. But I was starting to get inspired. So, I sent off a bunch more letters to graduate schools asking for their application info. I figured that maybe something would come through.
Over the next couple of months, I started to get catalogs and application forms from all sorts of graduate schools. To my great shock, I also heard back from the White House. They sent me an official White House internship application in an official White House envelope. At that point, I had never really heard of such a thing as an internship, but it sounded pretty good to me. Having transferred colleges so many times, I was very good at filling out applications. So, still in my scubafied state, I started filling out a ton of applications to graduate schools and, on a whim, even sent in the application to the White House. I figured if nothing else came of it, I could still keep the cool White House envelope.
That spring, to my great surprise, I received an acceptance letter from the International Affairs program at George Washington University in Washington, DC. My first thought was, “I’m going to have to start wearing shoes again.” After making some quick arrangements, a few short weeks later I landed in DC with a single backpack and the hope that being a grad student would be easier than being an undergraduate.
To my great relief, getting set up in DC wasn’t nearly as hard as I thought it might be. There were a few incidents of dumpster diving for needed furniture, but after a few days of class I quickly made a bunch of great new friends. I started running around the monuments on the National Mall almost every morning. It was during one of these runs, as I went past the White House that I thought, “Those White House bastards, they never even sent me a rejection letter, I should call them.” So I did.
I managed to get a hold of the White House internship coordinator. She asked, “Is this Eric Woodard?”
I said, “Yes, I was just wondering what happened with my application.”
She asked, “Eric from Guam?”
I said, “Yes, from Guam – but I’m in DC now”
She said, “Eric! We’ve been trying to get in touch with you! Can you start your internship next week?”
I couldn’t believe it. So, one week later, there I was: an intern in the White House, with a haircut, shoes on, assigned to the Office of the First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. I was more than wet behind the ears; I was a fish out of water.
How did I manage to land that internship? I didn’t have any real political connections and wasn’t a particularly accomplished student. By any conventional measure, there is no way I should have been able to pull it off. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I stumbled my way into the White House by bringing a lot of soft skills to bear without even knowing it.
Fast-forward about twenty years. My White House internship led to me getting hired as a White House staffer, I then followed Hillary Clinton as a member of her staff to the Senate and the State Department. During those years I developed and managed lots of different internship and fellowship programs, which has given me numerous opportunities to observe and mentor seemingly countless young professionals making the transition between work and school. The success I have experienced professionally as a result of my internship has had a mirror image personally. During my time in DC I met and married my smart and beautiful wife and we have been blessed with three smart and beautiful children; we live in a great house in Alexandria, VA.
I sure am glad I got that internship.Read More