Upon returning from a spring break fishing trip to Florida, Jonathan Pearce decided to check his Twitter account.
It’s something he said he rarely does, but he’s glad he chose to do so that day.
That’s because he saw an advertisement for the White House Internship Program, which has a mission of making the “People’s House” accessible to future leaders from around the nation.
The public service leadership program provides a unique opportunity to gain valuable professional experience and build leadership skills, according to whitehouse.gov. The hands-on opportunity is designed to mentor and cultivate today’s young leaders, strengthen their understanding of the Executive Office and prepare them for future public service opportunities.
Pearce’s internship with Sen. Todd Young’s office in New Albany was ending in a couple of months, so he decided to apply for the White House Internship Program. He filled out the online application, which included some essays, but wasn’t sure if he would be accepted in the competitive program.
In July, though, he was in Serbia on a mission trip with a small group from his church when he checked his email and saw a congratulatory message.
“I woke up at 5 in the morning. I just had this feeling that I should check my email, and so I opened it up and it said, ‘Congratulations,’” the 21-year-old Crothersville native said. “Needless to say, I couldn’t sleep. I got up at 5, drank some Turkish coffee and was just wired for the rest of the day.”
After passing an extensive background check, Pearce and the 88 other interns headed to Washington, D.C., to start their internship in early September and remained there until early December.
On the application, they were asked which office they wanted to work in, and Pearce chose the vice president’s office since Mike Pence is a Columbus native.
“I just wanted to serve in the office of a fellow Hoosier,” Pearce said. “I ended up getting chosen for the VP’s office, which was my No. 1, and I was really excited. It was really cool because I got to work with people that were from Indiana. They knew Seymour, knew Crothersville. It was a nice change being 600 miles away from home and having people from home there with me.”
Pearce said he helped with the day-to-day tasks in the office. The assignments given to an intern on any given day could include conducting research, managing incoming inquiries, attending meetings, writing memos and staffing events.
While interns’ responsibilities and tasks vary by department, all interns are united through weekly events, including a speaker series and professional development opportunities. The internship experience also emphasize community, and interns participate in service projects at nonprofit organizations in Washington, D.C.
Pearce said he occasionally saw Pence, and he had an opportunity to take pictures with him.
“I didn’t realize how busy he was until I was there,” Pearce said. “I had seen him around, but it wasn’t like an everyday thing.”
A highlight of the experience was getting to shake President Donald Trump’s hand outside the White House one day.
“Meeting the president was very cool,” Pearce said. “I was very nervous. The thing is he was actually a very nice guy. He could see that I was nervous just by looking at me. I truly believe he put his hand on my shoulder because he was trying to calm me down like, ‘It’s OK. You’re going to be OK.’”
He now has pictures of that moment to keep forever.
“It was very mind-blowing,” Pearce said. “For the rest of the day, I was just very out of it and like, ‘What just happened?’”
Pearce said he also liked working at the White House. He had been to the nation’s capital three other times, including his senior year of high school for the senior trip, but he had never been in the White House.
“I had watched ‘The West Wing’ on Netflix, and I was hoping that it was close so that I could walk in and basically have a better understanding of what it would be, and it was nothing like ‘The West Wing,’” he said.
“People were running around very busy, but as far as the layout, it was completely different,” he said. “I was very blown away. I would like to say that it was normal after a while, but every day, just showing up at work, it took my breath away. It just blew my mind every day.”
Seeing people working behind the scenes at the White House impressed Pearce.
“Basically, it increased my faith in the country because I got to meet the people that are running it and kind of behind the scenes, and they are really great people,” he said. “The majority of the people that I met were just very humble, very down to earth and very likable people. That was nice.”
During his three months there, Pearce stayed at Washington Intern Student Housing, which is right by Capitol Hill.
“It was like a 3-mile trip, and I used to take the metro to work and then walk home every day,” he said.
Pearce and the other interns were not paid, but he said Congress just passed a bill that from now on, federal interns will be paid.
He said he would encourage others to apply for the internship program, which is nonpartisan.
“Regardless of party, I think you should at least give it a shot because it’s a very eye-opening experience,” he said. “The stuff that you learn there is just really cool. I was a big history fan growing up. In school, it was my favorite subject, and I loved my government class, but I still wasn’t prepared, I guess, because whenever you’re there, it’s so much different than what it is on paper.”
While attending school in Crothersville, Pearce said he initially had plans to follow in the footsteps of his father, Jon Pearce, and become a pastor. He served as a youth pastor for a couple of years and said he really enjoyed that.
After graduating from Crothersville High School in 2016, though, he headed to Indiana University Southeast in New Albany and studied criminal justice.
Thanks to earning his associate degree in general studies from Ivy Tech Community College through the Austin Crothersville Early College Initiative while he was in high school, it only took him two years to earn his bachelor’s degree from IUS.
On campus one day, he saw a flier about interns being needed for Young’s office, so he applied and was accepted.
“I had been interested in politics,” Pearce said. “I hadn’t been very outspoken, but I wanted to be able to see what that was like. I’m not sure what I want to do (as a career), so I was looking into different areas, so I thought I would give that a try.”
He started in September 2017 and wound up being asked to stay for the second semester, so he served as the office’s only intern until May of this year.
“That office is the casework office, so if somebody has issues with the government or any government agency, they will call in,” Pearce said. “I just helped with day-to-day tasks, anything that needed to be done.”
Highlights were meeting Young and hearing from constituents.
“It was a very interesting opportunity, and I feel like I learned a lot there,” Pearce said. “I didn’t know that governments had casework offices, and then I was exposed to that and I was like, ‘Oh wow!’ With senators, they have maybe two or three different offices, and each office has a different task or job, which was really cool. It kind of opened my eyes to that.”
Now, Pearce is working, saving money and applying for scholarships so he can start law school in the fall of 2020. He has his eyes on Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis because Pence, Young and former Vice President Dan Quayle went there.
From the two internship programs to preparing to take the test to get into law school, Pearce said he is grateful for the opportunities he has been presented coming from a small town.
“It really doesn’t matter where you come from. As long as you’re determined, as long as you try and you really put effort into things, you can go far and do whatever,” he said.
“Growing up, I loved reading about presidents, history, the White House, and never in my life did I ever think I would end up interning there, but anything can happen,” he said. “That’s one thing that this internship has taught me is that basically nothing is impossible.”
As far as being back at the White House again someday, Pearce said he’s not sure yet if that’s in his plans.
“I’ve looked into being a prosecutor and things like that, but as far as my future career, I would love to know what I want to do right now,” he said, smiling. “It’s just wide open, and I have no idea.”
No matter what he winds up doing, Pearce will always remember the internships.
“It has definitely been a life-changing experience,” he said. “It was a very nice experience, and it’s definitely something I’ll never forget.”
Name: Jonathan Pearce
Residence: New Albany
Education: Crothersville High School (2016); Indiana University Southeast (bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, 2018); now working toward attending law school in the fall of 2020
Family: Parents, Jon and Michele Pearce; siblings, Madeline and Joseph
On the Web
For questions related to applications for the White House Internship Program, academic credit requirements or for any general inquiries about the program, email [email protected] or visit whitehouse.gov/get-involved/internships.