White House semester

Coveted spot is just one way this student has been involved with politics and government.

By Leslie Atchley (English '05)

Photo by Jack Mellott.

While her friends back in Charlottesville were staying up late nights, sleeping till noon on weekdays and showing up to class in sweats, third-year student Leah Kuchinsky spent a semester rising at 6 a.m., putting on a business suit and heading to work for 10 hours a day, five days a week. Was she ever jealous? Maybe on occasion, but having the chance to eat in the White House Mess, step inside the Cabinet room, and attend President Bush’s Nov. 3 acceptance speech made her decision to temporarily leave her student life behind a no-brainer.

After a rigorous and highly competitive interview process, Kuchinsky (Foreign Affairs ’06) was one of 100 college students from across the country selected to serve as White House interns in the fall of 2004. She was assigned to the Office of Cabinet Affairs, where her primary job was to compile reports about the activities and travel of all Cabinet secretaries.

Although she did perform many classic intern duties as well — answering phones, making copies, delivering papers — those tasks took on quite a different character in the White House. “Running an errand” for her supervisors occasionally took her from her office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building into the most private and protected section of the White House — the West Wing, where top-level meetings are held in the President’s offices.  “The first time I walked in there,” said Kuchinsky, “I couldn’t stop grinning.”

But despite her starstruck moments, Kuchinsky is hardly a newcomer to the world of politics. As a high-school student in Colonial Heights, Va., she learned that doctors were not required to notify police when they saw patients with injuries that could be consistent with handling explosives or weapons of mass destruction. “I was immediately concerned that there could be a gap between the medical community and law enforcement,” she said.

Working with Virginia Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), Kuchinsky researched and drafted a bill that requires doctors to inform the proper authorities when they treat certain kinds of suspicious injuries. The proposal created a bit of controversy due to the privacy issues involved, but Kuchinsky and Cox worked with doctor’s groups to create a version that satisfied both sides. The bill passed the General Assembly in May 2002, when she was a high-school senior.

Kuchinsky also spent time in Washington before becoming a White House intern. In the summer of 2004, she worked in U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) office on Capitol Hill. She gave tours of the Capitol to families from Cantor’s district, talked with his press secretaries and advisers about legislation and lunched with congressmen in the cafeteria.

During her time on the Hill and in the White House, Kuchinsky found herself in a “truly inspiring” environment. “Everyone was so kind and hardworking,” she said. “No one had an ego, and they were all team players.”

Kuchinsky also felt a strong sense of camaraderie through politics when she participated in a student program sponsored by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD). Before taking her position in Cantor’s office last summer, she went on a two-week trip to Tel Aviv, Israel, with 34 other undergraduates to study the effects of terrorism on democratic societies. The group heard speeches from military officials, diplomats, politicians and scholars on the topic of terrorism around the world.

In addition to the trip to Israel, the FDD undergraduate fellows serve as academic ambassadors on their campuses when they return. Kuchinsky and her U.Va. co-fellow Rachael Robinson (Spanish, Interdisciplinary ’05) have founded a student group to raise awareness about terrorism and human rights; they hope to bring in experts from different fields of counter-terrorism to address the University community.

Kuchinsky’s plans include law school, graduate school in international relations and work for the federal government. She will most likely take time off after graduation to work for a think tank before heading back to school, she said, and hopes to focus her energies on counter-terrorism and nonproliferation issues.

Though the field of politics is intensely high-pressure, Kuchinsky believes that the undeniably important purpose of her work outweighs any negatives. “If it’s stressful,” she said, “it’s stressful in a very good way.”