Augustana Student Fulfills Childhood Dream with White House Internship

Emily Novotny ’20, who is now an Augustana University alumna, says her dreams have come true.

“You know when you’re little and you write down what you want to do when you grow up? I always said that I wanted to work at the White House." — Emily Novotny '20, Augustana University alumna

The government/international affairs and communications double major landed a highly coveted internship at the White House in the fall of 2019 through the university’s Lutheran College Washington Semester (LCWS) program.

By landed, we mean worked extremely hard.

Dr. Emily Wanless, associate professor for government and international affairs at Augustana and the university’s LCWS program representative, recalls the exact moment she met Novotny. The teenager walked into her Distinguished Scholars interview in a business suit, slid her resume across the table and shook their hands with such confidence and maturity.

“I was like, ‘Sorry, who are you? You’re in high school?’” Wanless said, laughing.

“She already had it all figured out in the best possible way.” — Dr. Emily Wanless, associate professor for government and international affairs

That’s because Elk River, Minnesota native started getting real-world experience when she was just 14. Her love for the campaign trail began as a volunteer for a family friend, Nick Zerwas, during his run for Minnesota’s House of Representatives in 2012.

“We went to his first campaign meeting and I was hooked,” said Novotny. “I spent that entire summer with my parents driving me around, dropping me off at fundraisers, door knocking and doing parades. I loved it.”

In 2014, Novotny inserted herself into Tom Emmer’s campaign for Minnesota’s U.S. House of Representatives. She worked her way up to field director in 2017. That same year she interned at U.S. Senator John Thune’s office in Sioux Falls and became the state chair of the South Dakota Federation of College Republicans.

“I learned that I loved the campaign side more than I loved the official side.”

In 2018, Novotny served on gubernatorial campaigns in Minnesota and South Dakota for Tim Pawlenty and Kristi Noem.

But during all these internships, she was working towards the White House. Wanless and Dr. Michael Nitz, professor of communication studies, helped her think strategically about her class schedule and when she would graduate.

When talking about Wanless, Nitz said, “To me that’s the Augie Advantage — where you have a program that’s great and by itself that’s great, but you have a professor who is very familiar and has gone to the site; she pushes and challenges them. It’s that personal touch.”

Novotny had to apply for the internship a year in advance, but found out just three weeks before that she would get to fulfill her 5th grade aspirations.

“I bawled hysterically with my friends and called my parents and it was fun. It was a good moment,” said Novotny, looking back at that Friday night acceptance email.

And based on how she talks about those experiences, it was everything she hoped it would be.

Through the LCWS program, Novotny lived in an apartment in Arlington with two other students — one also from Augustana. She was a 10-minute metro ride away from the White House where she interned five days a week and took classes at night two days a week. 

While inside the people’s house, Novotny was assigned to the Office of Presidential Personnel (PPO), responsible for staffing 4,000 of the president's appointee positions.

She also interned in the White House Internship Program office, which coordinates the internship program and all of the White House volunteers.

Some of the highlights include shaking hands with President Donald Trump and tours of the East Wing with a White House historian, the Capitol Building, the Pentagon, the U.S. Supreme Court, the Washington Monument and the Decatur House. She also spoke in length about the LCWS Speaker Series, where she says she had the opportunity to hear from some of the best and brightest minds in politics in an organic and unfiltered environment.

So how unique is Novotny’s experience? Wanless has had a student apply for an internship at the White House every semester for the seven years she has taught at Augustana. Novotny is the first to get one. Wanless says having extensive internship experience for the party in office helps. The university has been bipartisan, as an Augustana student also secured an internship in the White House during the Obama administration.

Novotny said, “2016 was the first presidential election that I was age-eligible to vote in and I was honored to cast my vote for President Donald Trump; so being able to work in his White House for the Trump administration was an incredible honor that I am incredibly thankful for.”

But at the end of the day, Wanless says it’s the White House. And Novotny loved every minute of it even if it meant doing yardwork because it’s yardwork on the White House grounds.

Novotny said, “After working at the White House, I don’t know how you go back to school.”

Which is how Novotny planned it.

Following her internship and early graduation in the fall, she served as her father’s campaign manager to replace the man she helped get elected to the Minnesota legislature when she was a teenager, which her father won in a special election.

Novotny has aspirations of one day owning her own political fundraising firm, but that has to wait for now. She was recently hired to work full-time on the Trump/Pence re-election campaign where she will be traveling the country as a press advance representative.

Wanless says it’s satisfying to see something you plan for so long work out. But not all students find their calling at the White House. She says there are plenty of other opportunities through the LCWS program based in Washington, D.C., that aren’t government-related.

To learn more about LCWS, contact Dr. Emily Wanless.

Media Inquiries: Contact Jill Wilson, public relations and communications strategist.