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Alumni in the White House

April 22nd, 2009

By Josiah Helms

CONTACT:  David Halbrook
Patrick Henry College
(540) 338-8727

L, Cabinet Secretary Elaine Chao. R, PHC alumna Stephanie Terek

Few college students have the privilege of moving straight from graduation to a job on Capitol Hill, and even fewer get to transition straight into the White House. But for a handful of recent graduates, the nation’s capital proved a heady launching point for the rest of their careers. While the recent presidential transition left some searching for new jobs, this latest crop became only the most recent in a growing legacy of PHC grads to navigate those venerated halls. Needless to say, it’s an impressive citation to add to one’s résumé. So even though their computers and briefcases have left the White House, many are riding the rarefied experience straight into new jobs elsewhere.

Stephanie Terek spent three years working for the White House Liaison Office at the Department of Labor (DoL), following another White House internship at the Office of Cabinet Liaison. While there she served as White House Liaison George Bryan Slater’s deputy as he evaluated President Bush’s appointees to the DoL. This included conducting interviews, checking clearances, and running performance reviews. Terek also interacted with officials and public personalities, ensuring that they attended White House events that honored them for their hard work.

Terek’s ability to snag such an impressive job stemmed straight from her Patrick Henry College connections. During her interview, for instance, the Chief of Staff at the DoL was about to be called away because of tasks stemming from the Hurricane Katrina crisis. He would have sent her home, except that he glanced at her resume and saw she was from PHC.

“He said, ‘Have (Dr.) Michael Farris give me a call and recommend you, and you have a job,’” she recalls. What followed was the same rigorous review process that she later helped conduct, but Dr. Farris’s glowing recommendation opened the door. Today, not far removed from her successful run in the Bush White House, Terek is working for a private firm as a meeting coordinator.
PHC connections also helped Adrienne Cumbus land her job at the DoL, as her good friend Terek provided a door-opening recommendation. A PHC Journalism major, Cumbus had never expected a job in politics, but embraced it with tenacity typical of most PHC students. A well-rounded PHC education endowed her with the ability to learn and adapt, and she relished the opportunity to work with ex-classmates Terek and Chris Ridley, an assistant speechwriter, on tasks for Cabinet Secretary Elaine Chao.
At first, Cumbus was the smartly-dressed office lady, answering phones and showing visitors to their appointments in the huge reception area. Later, she was moved farther down the hallway to become secretary to the acting Chief of Staff.

“At that point, my desk was within yelling distance of the Cabinet Secretary herself,” Cumbus remembers. For the next 14 months, she provided assistance for unemployed workers seeking compensation pay, an experience that brought to life the stark employment numbers that filled her computer screen during a previous internship for the Bureau of Statistics.

Cumbus maintained her poise as hundreds of government officials whisked by her desk each day. It was an intense, professional environment in which her work was closely scrutinized. It made Cumbus thankful that her college experience had taught her the meaning of excellence. No longer did she lament her former, meticulous professors who drilled her on minute details. “I realized in that moment that they had averted my career from disaster.”

Cumbus also credits PHC with fueling her passion for the nation’s capital. “Washington, D.C. is an important city,” she says, “a city of people who work hard, a city of people with ‘Type A’ personalities. In many ways, it’s a model of PHC.”

Kendell Asbenson, another PHC graduate, went straight from learning about foreign nations to handling official gifts for U.S. ambassadors staying overseas. Equipped with gold foil wrapping bearing the President’s own seal, he helped hand-wrap gifts for U.S. ambassadors whom the President visited on travel abroad. Asbenson relates with a chuckle the time when, with his arms full of boxes in the West Wing, Condoleeza Rice stopped what she was doing to open the door for him.

He also helped troubleshoot IT problems for White House Management. If a Blackberry was broken, a database corrupted, or an official needed his computer fixed, Asbenson was the man scrambling to the job. He also attended to the two-lane bowling alley in the low-ceilinged, unfinished basement of the Eisenhower building, which staff members can reserve for private, Friday night get-togethers. Few people know that the White House has, in fact, two bowling alleys.

These three alumni and many of their fellow graduates had the time of their lives landing "first jobs" that other twenty-somethings could only dream about. When they left, each said they took care to follow outgoing President Bush’s respectful orders to leave everything in good order. Certainly, it was the right thing to do, and they wanted to represent a peaceful transition of power. But in the backs of their minds, some of them wondered whether, someday, they might return.

Read more alumni profiles.