Cynthia Lam '15

Cynthia Lam is an English and Business Administration double major from Westfield, N.J. She used her Johnson Opportunity Grant to intern in the Office of the Secretary, Department of Veterans Affairs, in Washington, D.C.

My summer was full of firsts. It was my first experience working for a Cabinet member, my first (of many) times getting lost on the Metro, and my first glimpse of seeing the government from behind the scenes. During my ten weeks in Washington, D.C, I met the first Asian-American female senator, wrote my first speech for the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and of course, ate my first Georgetown cupcake. Each day brimmed with exciting opportunities and unforgettable moments.  It ended up being the best summer of my life.

Coming into the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), I had no idea what to expect. As a 2013 Civic Fellow for the International Leadership Foundation (ILF), a national organization dedicated to fostering future Asian-Pacific American leaders, I was thrilled when I received an offer from the Office of the Secretary for my placement. The only thing was, none of my immediate family or friends had served in the military. My closest encounter with a veteran was playing BINGO with a Marine during an eighth-grade field trip to the VA hospital. Needless to say, my knowledge of veterans affairs was rather limited. But I was eager to learn, determined to make the most out of my experience. 

And boy, did I learn. The VA, it turns out, is the second-largest federal department, with a budget of $153 billion and over 300,000 employees, a third of whom are veterans. Inspired by Lincoln's famous words, "To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan," the VA provides quality medical care, benefits and memorial services for veterans through hospitals and cemeteries across the country. Under the leadership of Secretary Erik Shinseki, the VA is determined to increase healthcare access, end veterans' homelessness and eliminate the claims backlog by 2015. 

As an intern on "the tenth floor," I had the opportunity to interact with the Secretary, Chief-of-Staff, and the highest-ranking executives daily. I was assigned to Protocol, described as "the face of the VA," which was responsible for organizing special events, planning ceremonies, escorting VIPs and setting up meetings. When distinguished guests came to the VA (like Secretary of Education Arne Duncan or Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth), we were the first ones to greet them. We presented the first impression of the Secretary and the department as a whole, ensuring that every event ran smoothly.

In addition to these duties, I worked on a variety of projects (note: "project" can refer to anything from making a Staples run for cardstock, to reading and writing a report on a 300-page book for the Secretary in under 48 hours). My responsibilities included preparing weekly public affairs reports for the White House, managing databases, editing event programs, facilitating ceremonies and attending meetings. My favorite assignment, above all else, was writing a keynote speech for the Secretary, to be given at an exhibition honoring the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to World War II Japanese-American soldiers. I got to work closely with his team of speechwriters, analyzing the audience, compiling the background research and drafting numerous versions of the 20-minute piece. It was fascinating. As an English major and an avid writer, I could not have asked for a more gratifying task.            

Every one of these projects, no matter how big or small, contributed to the richness of my experience. What made everything so rewarding was the extraordinary level of exposure. Throughout the summer, I gained astounding access to the VA, the government, and most importantly, the people. I had the privilege of meeting many inspiring individuals--the disabled veteran, who overcame terrible injuries; the General Counsel, who fought some of the toughest cases; and my supervisor, who always went above and beyond expectations. These people were my mentors, and more importantly, my friends. These were connections that I will cherish for a lifetime.       

Many more of these connections were made after work, during the weekly speaker series and leadership development workshops organized by ILF as a supplement to our internship. Along with the other Civic Fellows, I learned how to access the government and engage my community.  We tackled key issues surrounding the economy, education and immigration head-on, in hopes of making a difference. The passionate conversations and relationships forged during these seminars bonded us together, and it was here that I found some of my closest friends.                          

Looking back now, at how my summer began with my first memory of veterans, playing BINGO at the VA hospital in eighth grade, I cannot help but smile. I have come a long way since then.  This summer was a first, but it surely won't be the last.