‘I Would Be the One To Make Everyone’s Sacrifices Worth It,’ Alejandra Campoverdi on Honoring Her Immigrant Family and Making It to the White House
The walk to the White House was a straight shot down 16th Street NW, and with each step, my nerves grew. I’d been warned that working in the White House was like drinking from a fire hose — a frenetic pace, sixteen-hour days, crushing stress, and little to no sleep. I tried to reassure myself that I was used to a brutal grind, having worked nonstop since I was in my early teens. But nothing could’ve prepared me for what I was about to experience. Not the campaign, not even Harvard.
I reported to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building before 8 a.m. for orientation and to receive my work badge. It’s hard to imagine a building as awe-inspiring as the White House itself, yet the EEOB stood next door with a grandeur all its own. Built in the late 1880s, the building holds over 550 rooms on ten acres of ornately tiled floors. It’s where the majority of White House staff work, given how little office space there is inside the actual White House.
“As I walked through the grounds to find my office, each moment was more surreal than the last“
I was handed a navy blue badge with a white W on it — something of a coveted status symbol, but I wasn’t aware of that yet. I hadn’t come up on campaigns or previously worked on Capitol Hill, like many of my new colleagues. The 2008 presidential campaign had been my very first job in politics, driven solely by my belief in then-senator Obama. Before orientation day, I had seen the White House only once, at a distance, through a tall black metal gate.
As I walked through the grounds to find my office, each moment was more surreal than the last. My first stop was a Secret Service checkpoint at the entrance to the lower West Wing. A uniformed man with a buzz cut looked me up and down as I tried my best to not seem suspicious.
“Badge?” he said, with a hint of annoyance that I wasn’t wearing one.
“Oh, yes. Sorry.” I fumbled through the stack of folders in my arms for the lanyard I’d just been given.
“You need to keep that around your neck at all times, ma’am.”
“I will. Sorry,” I responded, pulling the badge over my head with one hand and resting it faceup.
When he nodded for me to walk through, I stood there dumbfounded for a few seconds. That was it? I was in?
I entered the West Wing and walked up to the lobby, passing the Roosevelt Room and FDR’s portrait staring back at me. I turned the corner and stopped in my tracks in front of a broad doorway that revealed a full view of… the Oval Office. Just ahead of me, at twelve o’clock, was the historic Resolute Desk — empty, but imposing all the same. I had been told that the air was different in the Oval, but I wouldn’t know. I was holding my breath.
“Remember this moment, I said to myself. Remember how you feel right this very moment“
Past the Oval was a passageway that led to six offices, including those of the chief of staff, a senior advisor to the president, and the vice president. It was a dim, narrow hall with no windows, but this was prime real estate because of its location. You can imagine my shock when this is where I was told I’d sit — ten steps from the Oval Office.
My boss, Mona, was already at her desk when I walked in. I overheard her discussing the most recent job growth numbers on the phone as I passed by, noticing her smart suit and heels. Mona was who I aspired to be —effortlessly polished and brilliant. I immediately promised myself that she’d never beat me to the office again. I would make sure to be in my seat when she arrived and still be sitting there when she left for the day. And I would get to know everything about her. That was the loose job description of a White House special assistant: Be one step ahead of all of your principal’s needs. From meetings to briefing materials to the toppings she liked on her oatmeal (brown sugar and raisins).
I settled into my desk, ready to work around the clock and validate her decision to hire me. We had met only days before, in the flurry of hiring right before Inauguration Day. After waiting around DC for a month, I’d been interviewed and offered the position all at once, and I was nervous about living up to her expectations. I spent my first day trying to anticipate the wishes of a stranger, as well as figuring out how the secure phones worked, where we could find some food (the White House Mess), and meeting my new colleagues.
The West Wing housed only a few hundred staff in mostly two cohorts — the bold-faced names you read about in the paper and the young aides who were their assistants, fresh off the campaign and convinced we would change the world. We were all onboarding at the same time, leaving us little room to get to know each other, but I figured there would be plenty of opportunities for that as we settled into the coming weeks and months.
Watching my peers mill around gathering supplies and setting up their secure computers, I couldn’t believe how lucky I was that these talented young people would soon be my friends. Everyone seemed so confident and accomplished. And I wasn’t the only one fascinated by them. “Politico” was reporting on the comings and goings of White House staffers like it was “DeuxMoi.”
“Taking stock of every road that had led to this instant, I thought of the arc of my family’s story“
By the time my boss went home that first day and I had quadruple-checked that her briefing materials for the next day were prepped and on her desk, the sky had turned pitch-black. I left through the West Wing lobby’s double doors and took a dark path across the North Lawn to Pennsylvania Avenue. When I reached the black metal fence, something told me to turn around. Bathed in bright white light under the moon, the White House was breathtaking.
Remember this moment, I said to myself. Remember how you feel right this very moment.
Taking stock of every road that had led to this instant, I thought of the arc of my family’s story. My great-grandmother’s factory job as a single mother in Mexico. My grandmother’s struggle to raise six kids in Mexico, mostly alone and broke. My mother’s first job in the U.S. making car mats in Compton. And now, I was working in the White House.
Generations’ worth of Firsts. Generations’ worth of Onlys. I would be the one to make everyone’s sacrifices worth it.
A picture-perfect story of the American Dream, right?
Four days later, it all came crashing down.
Excerpted from the book “First Gen: A Memoir” by Alejandra Campoverdi.