As college students, we are all pretty anxious about what the future holds post-graduation. Job hunting can be extremely stressful… especially if you’re not sure what industry you want to go into. Katie Heller, like many of us, was once in this predicament. Heller began her college career as a social work major because she wanted to make a difference. After a life changing internship opportunity, she decided to switch her major to strategic communications in order to affect change in a different way. With public policy being her main focus, Heller began her political career volunteering for the Obama administration. She was able to land an internship, and ultimately a job at the White House. Heller, a former PRSSA member and WVU graduate, was kind enough to provide us with some insight and advice based on her amazing experience.
The following are eight questions that we asked along with Heller’s written responses.
1. Tell us a little about your job and what it entails on a day to day basis?
My last job ended with the turnover of the White House Administration. In my previous position, I was an Advance Associate for 2 years. This entails traveling on behalf of the Administration to set up events and scheduling logistics for the President and Vice President of the United States. I would travel domestically to prepare rallies, town hall events, fundraisers and the like. The last 10 months of my job focused more on international travel to work with foreign governments at meetings such as the G20 Summit, World Economic Forum, and other global and United Nations events.
2. How did you get into the position you’re in today?
I began my Advance role after building connections through the White House Internship and staying in touch with colleagues until after I graduated in December 2014.
3. When did you decide that you wanted to work in Government/Public Affairs and what influenced you?
I enrolled at WVU as a Social Work major, where I studied that field until the beginning of my junior year. After a couple summer internships at a drug and mental health rehab facility, I realized that I was drawn towards fixing the policies that eventually trickled down to the individual centers rather than the day to day job of a social worker. Simultaneously, I decided to start volunteering on the Obama 2012 presidential campaign in Morgantown. After some thorough consideration on my next steps and the practicality of pursuing policy, I decided to change my major to Public Relations with a minor in Political Science. To me, this offered me a route that was easily transferable to different industries if I later decided I didn’t want to pursue politics and policy anymore. It has definitely been one of the most valuable and transformative decisions I’ve made. My passion continued to grow through my involvement in Young Dems and SGA.
4. What is the most challenging part of working in Government/Public Affairs?
As I am experiencing now, working in government can be a bit of a gamble. If you choose to work for a specific politician or campaign, your job is reliant on their electability. Recently, my candidates time came to an end and now those in the Democratic Party are experiencing a transition as the Republican party fills many of the vacant government positions. That’s just how the cycle works, for better or worse.
Additionally, from my experience, government and public affairs work can get frustrating due to the ever-changing political climate. You may be focused on a specific policy [health care, immigration, education, etc.] but it must be put to the wayside for a bit to focus on the most current and relevant issue, even if you’re not personally as passionate about it.
5. Did you want to work, or have you worked in any other aspect of PR?
When applying for internships for summer 2014, I sent in an application to Second City (a renowned comedy club in Chicago) and the White House. I was equally interested in both and figured fate would decide. I was accepted to the White House Internship and never heard back from Second City. Now that I’m currently facing the job application process again, I’ve reconsidered the comedy and entertainment world a bit.
6. What were you involved in while in undergrad? Anything specifically that you think led you to the career you have today?
As I mentioned a bit before, I was heavily involved in Young Democrats and Student Government at WVU. As well as PRSSA and Student Advocates for Legislative Advancement. I would say they all were very formative in where I am today.
Young Democrats helped to further feed my passion for politics and campaigning. It kept me up to date with current trends in the political realm and provided me opportunities to work with elected officials in the state. Through this experience, I was able to intern for Senator Manchin on Capitol Hill with his press team.
Student Government provided me with leadership experience and forced me out of my comfort zone. I HATED public speaking or introducing myself to other students. I’m rather introverted naturally, so it’s taken some training and time to make me comfortable around people I don’t know. I credit a lot of my personal and professional growth to my experience with SGA and my year serving on the Board of Governors. It’s paid off a lot in being able to interact with colleagues in senior leadership positions and the confidence to be an effective decision-maker in my own regard.
PRSSA helped with learning how to appropriately network and build my own brand. No matter what career path you choose, you are a brand, and that can either make you or break you. Going to the annual conferences and taking workshops through the organization allowed me to practice networking skills that I still use consistently.
7. Katie, can you talk a little about your internship at Edelman and at The White House?
The White House Internship, without a doubt, got me to where I am in my career. I worked in the Office of Presidential Personnel on the National Security team. In this role, I did a lot of HR focused work to help fill vacant Ambassador positions, as well as openings in the Department of Defense, Peace Corp, State Department and USAID. Working through hiring process was beneficial on a personal level as I learned how to enhance my resume and interview skills and I could see what would make or break a candidate. The internship program also offered lecture series where interns would meet with senior officials (speechwriters, chief of staff, schedulers, etc) and learn the day to day inner-workings of the White House. It allowed me to build an invaluable network of people that I remain in contact with today.
As a Graduate Intern for Edelman, I was placed on the Food and Nutrition Policy team. This team consults with companies such as Taco Bell, Coca Cola, Dannon, etc. My internship overlapped with the congressional vote for the Dietary Guidelines (how much sugar you’re supposed to consume in a day, how many calories, and other info you see on nutrition labels). It made it a very interesting time to work on that team. It was very research heavy and one of the most hands-on internships I’ve had. I felt more like part of the team rather than just the intern. It also provided a very clear path to being able to get hired on full time after 3-6 months. They also provide weekly “brown bag lunches” where interns can talk to senior members from different teams to get a better feel of the overall company. I couldn’t say enough great things about my experience there and the ethics of the company, but I ended up taking the White House job instead of the Edelman one.
8. What advice do you have for those about to graduate on finding a job?
My advice is to keep in contact with mentors and continuously build your network. It is possible to blindly apply for a job, but it will be exponentially easier to get an interview if you can get a recommendation from someone on the inside. LinkedIn is also a great resource to find out if you know someone at a company you’re interested in. No matter where you are in your career, it can always pay off to grab coffee with someone and chat about opportunities so don’t be timid in asking to meet up with a mentor. Be prepared to talk about what you want to do and don’t be afraid to ask questions.