In November 2011, Jim Messina — President Barack Obama’s campaign manager this past election — leaned across the stage at an event in Houston Hall and posed a question to then-College junior Graham White.
“Do you want a job next summer?” Messina asked casually.
Over a year later, White, now a senior, found himself standing among throngs of people in front of the U.S. Capitol, looking on as Obama was sworn into office for a second term.
While hundreds of Penn students made their way down to Washington for Monday’s inauguration, few had as active of a role in getting Obama re-elected as White.
White left Penn for the entire fall 2012 semester to work for the Obama campaign, serving as a paid staffer on the advance team for Vice President Joe Biden. Through his job, White traveled across the country with a small group of other advance team members, staking out sites for Biden to hold campaign events days later.
“I wanted to be able to look back one day and say that I helped re-elect this president,” White said of his decision to take time off from Penn, adding that Monday’s inauguration marked the “end of a chapter” for him personally.
After a brief stint working on the advance team for First Lady Michelle Obama, White — who was the only undergraduate on his team — started off on the campaign trail with Biden near the end of August 2012.
White described his average day as a “whirlwind.” Most mornings began with a joint conference call between the White House and the Obama headquarters in Chicago, during which time White’s team would receive instructions about the type and size of event the campaign wanted for Biden.
White would spend the next few days looking for a venue — often a high school gym — and working with the rest of the advance team to market the event to local crowds.
Among other states, he helped organize campaign rallies in Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio and Virginia.
For White, the most stressful part of the job was searching out a venue, given that “the location can really make or break a rally.”
“They’d fly us out in the morning, and the rest of the day was really spent as a wild goose chase trying to find a good site,” he said.
Despite White’s nonstop schedule throughout the campaign, the job certainly came with its perks.
For one, White said, he would generally get a few minutes of face time with Biden every week. Although most of his conversations with Biden were not about specific policies or initiatives, he said it was especially interesting to see the vice president outside the public spotlight.
White also had an opportunity to meet Bruce Springsteen before he performed at a campaign rally at Iowa State University in October. Before the show, he carried two of Springsteen’s guitars from the car.
Though White had little time to keep in touch with friends and family while on the road, many at Penn kept up with him through Facebook and Twitter.
“I’ll always be envious of Graham’s social media skills — every day I was able to get a little taste of what he was up to,” said College senior Isabel Friedman, who came to know White through Penn Democrats.
Friedman, who also took a gap year before coming to Penn to work on the 2008 Obama campaign, added that the experience of being a full-time campaign staffer is unrivaled by most.
“There’s some people for whom making a decision to take time off seems like too much, but for Graham I think it was really a natural progression of his own career development and his passion,” she said.
Kathryn Tenpas, director of the Washington Semester Program, which White has participated in, agreed.
“It seemed like he really took advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a part of history, to shape history,” she said.
Although White is unsure if he’ll wind up in politics long-term — he’s looking to go to law school after graduating from Penn — he said that Monday’s inauguration was a reaffirmation of his decision to join the Obama team on the campaign trail.
“It was hard not to be nostalgic in some ways because it was sort of the culmination of our work,” he said. “It definitely made me realize that I’ll miss this.”