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Mail to the Chief

Volunteer role in White House correspondence office delivers great experience for president of EIU College Democrats

It's not every day an Eastern Illinois University student gets to read President Barack Obama's mail.

But this summer, that's exactly what senior political science major Ryan Plunkett did as a volunteer in the White House's Office of Presidential Correspondence.

The experience -- which sometimes also included reading hundreds of emails a day and answering phones on the White House comment line -- strengthened Plunkett's resolve to embark on a political career, in hopes of making a positive difference.

"You just read so many American stories from all walks of life, and you get this bird's eye view of what's going on," Plunkett said. "It teaches you about the country. Americans come from many different backgrounds, but they're all amazing."

Each day, the Office of Presidential Correspondence selects 10 letters for the president to read in order for him to stay in tune with Americans' issues and concerns.

During Plunkett's time in the office, some big political issues surfaced, including the Supreme Court's healthcare law decision, Obama's declaration that he supports gay marriage, and the administration’s announcement of deferred action for certain young illegal immigrants.

Other topics weren't quite as weighty. For example, "a very common email" received by the office asked the White House to release its beer recipes, the result of an online campaign. (The White House obliged.)

Plunkett never met any of the Obamas, although he was standing 10 feet away as Obama stepped off of Marine One the day after the healthcare decision. "He looked pretty happy," Plunkett said.

The White House pastry chef gave Plunkett and his coworkers a tour of the famous White House garden, where Plunkett pulled some weeds and took note of the unusual sight of papayas among the rows of food.

Plunkett earned six credit hours through doing office work and attending seminars, classes and speaker series. He also attended a constituent coffee hour held by Illinois' U.S. Senate delegation, where he met Sen. Dick Durbin. And as part of the program's community engagement requirement, Plunkett volunteered at an Ethiopian community center, where he helped a woman learn English writing skills.

In all, it was a great opportunity to network with people who could be the key to future employment opportunities, he said.

Plunkett, whose resume already includes work on state senate and U.S. Congressional campaigns, is also the president of the EIU College Democrats, which he's helped grow over the past few years.

In December, Plunkett will earn his bachelor's degree a semester early, giving him a head start on his plans for a political career in Washington, D.C.

"I'd love to return to the administration," Plunkett said, adding that he'll "cast a really wide net" for potential jobs, including Capitol Hill, the Democratic Party, consulting agencies and nonprofits.

Life in the nation's capital will be much different than his childhood in his tiny hometown of Findlay, where he first became interested in politics. But it's a lifestyle he's looked forward to since he became enthralled with Washington, D.C., during a family trip when he was in eighth grade.

"I had my 'homecoming' this summer, and I didn't love it any less," Plunkett said. "It's where I want to build my future."

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