Dec. 11, 2012
When Jonay Foster walked into the White House for her first day as a legal intern, she could hardly believe it.
“It was surreal. I didn’t really believe I was there,” she said. “I think everyone was just completely in awe and amazed to have the opportunity to do something so great in serving our nation and our president,” Foster said.
Foster, Class of 2013, worked with five other legal interns in the White House Counsel’s Office from January to May. As her internship was coming to an end, White House staff members invited her to stay on through the summer to work with attorneys in the Presidential Personnel Office.
She jumped at the opportunity, and also worked on Capitol Hill this summer as a Labor Fellow for the House of Representatives with the Committee on Education and the Workforce, Democrat Office, where she worked on labor and health care issues. Foster returned to Tucson just days before her last year at Arizona Law.
The internships were not her first in Washington D.C., but working at the White House was the ultimate chance to learn about administrative law and policy. “It was hard to leave,” she said.
While working in the White House Counsel’s Office, Foster assisted attorneys in researching legal cases and writing informal memos, mostly about domestic policy issues.
“You are handling very relevant and timely issues,” Foster said. “You gain a perspective that you don’t get looking outside in. It was a great experience.”
Foster said her internship at the White House was life-changing: She saw what it means to be a good lawyer from some of the best attorneys in the country, and it opened her eyes to other areas of law that she previously wouldn’t have considered.
“The highlight was getting a chance to learn from very experienced and very good lawyers,” Foster said. “To have the opportunity to learn from them was probably one of the best things I took away from the experience. Seeing how they think. Seeing how they analyze issues. What matters. It’s not something that is taught in a book. It’s just about being there.”
She was also impressed with how much the White House Counsel attorneys were willing to invest their time with the interns. “If their door was open, usually it was the green light for me to ask any questions. It was just conducive to learning. They were extremely busy, but they also made an effort to make sure the interns had a great experience.”
Foster did not get to meet President Barack Obama personally or play basketball on the White House basketball court. She would have undoubtedly impressed: Foster was a starting guard on the Johns Hopkins basketball team in college.
She did, however, get to meet First Lady Michelle Obama, who spoke to the White House interns about the importance of public service. As a young lawyer Michelle Obama quit a lucrative job at a Chicago law firm to work in public service.
“She gave us some good advice about pursing our careers and our goals,” Foster said.
Foster began focusing her own career in public policy while still in college. “I went to undergrad thinking I wanted to be a doctor,” Foster said. But a public health class changed her mind and set her on a different course. “It was my fun class for the semester,” she said. “I ended up becoming really interested in public health because of the macro picture it took, looking at the big picture, affecting populations at a time rather than just one patient.”
She knew if she wanted to make a difference in people’s lives through public health, she would ultimately need policy experience. After her junior year of college, Foster worked with the Urban Institute in Washington D.C. conducting health policy research. That work led to an article she co-authored, published in the American Journal of Public Health, during her first year of law school.
In her senior year at Johns Hopkins University, she spent about three days a week working in D.C. She continued the health policy research that she began at the Urban Institute and worked in her Chicago Congressman’s D.C. office. She mostly did there what many congressional interns do — answer phones. But she also wrote a speech about poverty for Representative Danny K. Davis and wrote some of his extended remarks for the Congressional Record.
After college she returned to D.C., analyzing health care legislation while serving as the Wellstone Fellow for Social Justice for Families U.S.A. She researched and wrote issue briefs about how health care legislation affected low-income and minority populations.
After her first year of law school, Foster returned to D.C. in the summer to work with the Office of the General Counsel in the Department of Health and Human Services. She worked with the litigation and program review teams doing legal research and writing memos about issues related to Medicare and Medicaid.
Foster found her internship at Health and Human Services through the Government Honors & Internship Handbook. The handbook — the national resource on federal government internships for law school students — is compiled and published by Arizona Law’s Career and Professional Development Office
Foster wasn’t the only Arizona Law student working in D.C. during the summer.
“There were a lot of us,” she said. Fellow Arizona Law students worked at the State Department, Department of Justice, and D.C. area law firms. “ I was surprised by the number of students who wanted to come to D.C. and ended up in D.C. The school does a really good job with that.” she said.
Though the internship was unpaid, Foster said she was awarded a scholarship through the University of Arizona’s Office of Federal Relations to help pay for living expenses. The scholarship is specifically for students working in government internships in Washington D.C
Foster encouraged other students to apply to work in D.C., especially at the White House. The internship also included professional development workshops and research training, she said. Top advisors to President Obama spoke to the more than 100 White House interns, often about their own career paths. “It was a very holistic program,” she said.
“It’s life changing. It’s one of those experiences you can never replicate. You have the opportunity to work with the best,” Foster said, “and it’s something that can never be taken away from me.”
“The law school, they were great, in working with me, in making sure I was able to have this experience and putting me in a position where I wouldn’t have to stay at law school for an additional semester,” Foster said.
Foster is filling her packed final year with classes in administrative Law, health policy law, rule making, and law for non-profit organizations.
“I’m looking at what will inform my career as a public interest lawyer,” Foster said, sharing that she hopes to return to D.C. “I feel like it’s my second home.”