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A presidential appointment

When Sustainability Science/Spanish major Michael Robinson ’16 received an internship in the Executive Office of the President, Office of Energy and Climate Change, he thought he’d be in for a fair amount of administrative duties. “Surely they wouldn’t rely on interns to do much but help keep the office running,” Robinson recalls saying to himself. Far more than making copies, random errand-running, and fetching coffee, Robinson quickly learned he was in for a great deal more. “[The people in the Executive Office] really give you a long leash to take on responsibility, and they trust you by the end if you warrant that trust.”

The Greensboro, N.C. native didn’t rub elbows with President Barack Obama on a daily basis during his spring semester internship, but he did get the chance to meet the POTUS toward the end of his stint, and participated in high-level meetings as part of a seven member team in the Office of Energy and Climate Change, just one component of the White House Domestic Policy Council.

The Office of Energy and Climate Change is charged with implementing the President’s Climate Action Plan, which was released in 2013 and advanced the administration’s environmental roadmap for the second term and beyond.

Coordinating climate change initiatives across multiple agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, and Department of Agriculture, each with their own priorities, Robinson’s office canvassed their efforts and charted policies emerging from those agencies.

The office also coordinated meetings among industry, consulting firms, and intergovernmental stakeholders like mayors, governors, and state-run agencies (e.g., transportation, departments of natural resources, energy commissions) to identify new opportunities for creating green jobs, reducing dependence on oil, and transitioning to a clean energy economy. Of the intergovernmental stakeholders Robinson says, “Outreach to these groups is a big priority for the administration—to be accessible to local and state governments, listening to feedback from different rules and officials’ response to executive action.”

Part of Robinson’s duties was keeping abreast of news and staying ahead of potential challenges to the President’s plan–looming attacks on regulations, or brewing legal opposition to climate change policy. Adding to a constant stream of fact-finding was a speaker series where cabinet- and senior-level officials briefed Robinson and company on various topics. Says Robinson, “On regular basis, senior staffers would spend time talking with us, giving advice, answering our questions—anyone from the Chief of Staff, chief speech writers, Vice President Joe Biden, or First Lady Michelle Obama, would come in and spend an hour or more with us to take our questions.”

Robinson, a Shi Center for Sustainability Fellow who went through four rounds of vetting to snag the only intern position at the White House related to climate change, says the takeaways from the experience were many. “My experience informed a decision to go back to D.C. one day,” he says. “That’s probably the most important outcome of all this … figuring out that I like working in the government sphere.”michael robinson '16 edited HU

In his humble way, Robinson admits he was unsure about his ability to hold his own amid others in the internship program whom he describes as “high-achieving, type A, law school bound, and headed for illustrious careers …” He says, “I was not in that mold at all.” Having completed a successful term in D.C., Robinson says, “Learning if you’ll sink or swim is a big thing to understand about yourself.”

Not known for being politically-minded, Robinson came away from his time in D.C. with a new passion for policy. To round out his last year at Furman, Robinson is committed to getting involved in political organizations on campus and perhaps investing time in presidential campaigning. He also came away with a newfound resolve to encourage students to seek opportunities outside the classroom through internships or study away. “Not everyone thinks about taking a semester off to do something like this, and it’s a risk, but this internship was one of the most important decisions I’ve ever made in my life.”

Perhaps ranking a close second for life decisions was Robinson’s study away semester in Spain prior to his White House internship. He says study away is an opportunity to open your mind, clear the cobwebs, and experience an entirely different culture. He credits his time in Spain for becoming fluent in Spanish through the language immersion program there.

Basking in the glow of the study away and White House experiences, Robinson offers advice for the incoming or prospective student. “When you come to college, don’t tell yourself before day one that you have to graduate in four years, or that there has to be a pre-determined path to follow. You need to find what you want to do while you’re here … We are so into having everything figured out ahead of time, but sometimes it’s really nice to let go … ”

Speaking with wisdom beyond his years, Robinson sums his advice with one word—relax. “If you put your head down and work hard, opportunities open up for you as a Furman student, they really do …” In full view of the West Wing, next door to the White House in the Executive Office Building, Robinson remembers, “Every day I’d look around and say, ‘Wow, I work in the White House for the most important man in the world.’ It never ceased to amaze.”

Learn more about the Shi Center for Sustainability and the sustainability science major.

Last updated May 15, 2015
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Clinton Colmenares
News & Media Relations Director