Army veteran interns at White House to fuel political passion

Paul Agbeyegbe spent his summer interning on arguably the most historic and patriotic 18 acres in the United States – the White House.

Agbeyegbe, 26, is a second-year law student at UM who has always been interested in politics. His interests are mainly in political strategy because it reminds him of chess.

Agbeyegbe received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Miami in both political science and African studies. As an undergraduate, he took President Donna E. Shalala’s class, U.S. Health Care Crisis: The Politics of Healthcare Reform. Coincidentally, he took the course at the same time President Barack Obama was signing his health care bill, so students were able to discuss and apply that to their studies.

“It was amazing being taught health care by President Shalala during the same semester that President Obama signed the health care law,” he said. “I had no idea that a few years later I would be in the White House during the summer that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law. It’s great to be in the right place at the right time.”

After the semester, he kept in contact with Shalala, and when he heard about the internship, she encouraged him, saying it was a great opportunity.

“Paul has had the opportunity of a lifetime,” Shalala said in a press release. “He will be a better citizen because of his experiences at the White House.”

Of the thousands of applications, he and 149 other students were chosen to participate in the White House internship program for the summer of 2012. Once at the White House, he interned in the Office of Public Engagement (OPE) and Intergovernmental Affairs (IGA).

“I looked at it as a great adventure where I would get to learn more about America, our capitol, the staff members who run the nation, our politics, how the country works and about Washington, D.C.,” Agbeyegbe said. “I enjoyed the museums and speaking to staff members. I was looking for an adventure and that’s what I got.”

The staff members in the OPE and IGA departments work with constituent groups such as females, African Americans, religious groups and Native-American tribes, among others. The staff then talks with them about policies on various issues.

As an intern, Agbeyegbe’s job was to make the process as smooth as possible, which meant preparing the meeting room, processing security clearances and making sure everyone was in their proper areas. He was able to sit in on the meetings and witness the discussions firsthand.

“I was moved by the passion the staff members had towards the issues they were discussing,” he said.  “It was great to see how these issues are always on the staff members’ minds and how they are always thinking about the president’s policies and how they will affect the public. They’re trying to get things right, and I was touched to see their responses.”

The best part for Agbeyegbe, however, was getting to lead tours of the White House’s East Wing for veterans from local hospitals. He is a veteran and served in the U.S. Army, where he received the 2006 Soldier of the Year award for his unit and the Army Commendation Medal for his service in Iraq.

“It was a great honor to escort them and give them the little bit of information that I knew, and if I didn’t know something, I went to the first Secret Service agent I saw and asked because they know way more than I do,” Agbeyegbe said.

He is looking forward to completing a program to obtain his law degree and a master’s degree in business. In the future, he plans to work at a law firm to gain experience, and one day hopes to open his own business. He is still undecided about which specialty to pursue, and is looking to do more internships to decide.

“During my internship I learned you can only be as successful as the people around you,” he said. “The team of staff members is why the president has accomplished so much. I know I need to feel comfortable with the people I work with, and that is something I am looking forward to in the future.”

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Ashley Martinez is a senior majoring in journalism and psychology, which have sharpened her people-watching skills. She has worked as a staff writer, copy editor, assistant editor and is now the Edge arts and entertainment editor at The Miami Hurricane. She serves as the president of UM's chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Her work has been featured in The Hurricane, Distraction Magazine, The Communique, Gables Home Page and The Miami Herald. When she's not working on a story, she loves going to the theatre and singing show tunes.