Episodes from The East Wing

Three months into his co-op with the Office of the First Lady Michelle Obama last fall, Klevis Xharda stood in a reception hall filled with dozens of past recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Here were baseball legend Hank Aaron, feminist-activist Gloria Steinem, microfinance pioneer Muhammed Yunus, President Bill Clinton, members of the Kennedy family—to Xharda, SSH’14, “some of the greatest and most revolutionary figures in modern history.”

As President Barack Obama paid tribute to two 50-year anniversaries—of both the medal and the death of its founder, President John F. Kennedy—Xharda, assigned to staff the event, was struck by the guests’ warmth and humility. “If I’ve learned one thing from this internship,” he says now, “it’s that the people who seem untouchable on TV are so human”—gracious, humble, normal—“when you’re in the same room with them.

“There is something comforting in this realization.”

As one of roughly 6,000 applicants for more than 100 spots, Xharda had scores of occasions to interact with White House guests and senior staff as one of three student interns reporting to Social Secretary of the United States Jeremy Bernard. “If these deeply human men and women can accomplish great things,” Xharda says, “there’s a chance for the rest of us to make a difference.”

It was a heady experience for this native Albanian, who as a toddler ran barefoot through crumbling city blocks before fleeing the country for the U.S. with his family in 1998. For 16 weeks between September and December, Xharda, a fourth-year political science and international affairs combined major, coordinated events hosted by the president and first lady, from the Kennedy Center Honors to a symposium at which A-list actors taught filmmaking basics to public high school students.

Often working past midnight, Xharda says he relished his responsibilities and the camaraderie among his colleagues. Among many “unforgettable” opportunities were regular brown-bag lunches with senior staff and a Q-and-A with Michelle Obama on her childhood obesity initiative, among other topics. And, oh—a handshake from the president himself.

“We were assigned tasks to execute as we saw fit, but we had plenty of support,” says Xharda. “We were empowered to do our jobs, motivated by others’ confidence and trust.”

Xharda’s biggest assignment: To identify and schedule musical performances by groups across the country for the First Family and guests at 18 holiday receptions. While some, like The Gay Men’s Chorus, were well known, most were “ordinary people,” college students, children, and senior citizens. Among them were the Nor’easters, Northeastern’s award-winning a cappella group.

Xharda is grateful for support he received from the John Elfers Memorial Scholarship Fund and for gifts from parents and alumni who are making more unpaid co-ops like his possible. “You develop a level of humility and dedication through public service,” he says. On the heels of his experience, he notes, “I’m also a lot more ambitious now.”

“All my life I’ve been interested in foreign policy and security, but the White House made me think: ‘O.K. Now, how can I top this?’”

“I’m interested in government, but I’m also interested in innovating,” he says. “I realize I have options, and I want to explore them before aiming for grad school.”