Working at The White House: Meet the Women of the FLOTUS Office Part 3

Today is the third and final installment of our FLOTUS staff series, highlighting the amazing women who serve on the First Lady’s team at the White House. If you haven’t already, check out Part 1, which features a message from Michelle Obama herself and profiles on the FLOTUS Social Office, and Part 2, which features Q&As with the FLOTUS Chief of Staff Office.

In Part 3 of our series, we talk with Lauren Vrazilek and Kelly Miterko of the FLOTUS Communications Office and Let’s Move! Initiative. Neither Lauren nor Kelly ever considered the White House in their realm of professional possibilities. Lauren began her career in the mail room, and Kelly as an intern. Now, as the deputy of press secretary and the deputy director of the Let’s Move! initiative (a program dedicated to solving childhood obesity), Lauren and Kelly oversee communication projects and manage all components of the initiative, respectively.

Here, we talk with both women about the passion behind their White House pursuits and their favorite projects to date.

Name: Lauren Vrazilek

Location: Washington, D.C., USA
Current title: Deputy Press Secretary to the First Lady
Education: UC Santa Barbara

While you were in school at UCSB you applied for an internship at the White House. What inspired you to apply? Was it something you had been working towards?
Working for the First Lady isn’t something I worked towards because, to be honest, it isn’t something I ever considered within the realm of possibility.

Towards the end of my senior year, I started looking for jobs online. At that point in time, the Obama Administration had been in office for a year and a half, and like many Americans, I was in awe of Michelle Obama. One day while searching for jobs, I typed “intern for First Lady Michelle Obama” into Google—it sounds insane, but that’s actually how it happened.

The application to intern at the White House was due during finals week, and I almost didn’t submit my application. I vividly remember telling my mom that it was more important to work on an essay for my finals than to apply for an internship that I was never going to get. Thankfully, she talked some sense into me, and said it was more than worth it to get a B in a class for the chance of landing an internship with the First Lady, and of course she was right—I got a B in the class, but it was definitely worth it.

There are a lot of obstacles that may prevent you from getting what you want, but you shouldn’t be one of them. – Lauren Vrazilek

You applied for the internship online and never dreamed that you would get it. Now that you’ve successfully navigated the process of being hired by the White House, do you have any tips for someone who might be interested in the same path?
The best advice I can give is: There is no set path. I never would have imagined I’d be the deputy press secretary to the First Lady, and I would never have gotten to this place if I didn’t reach out of my comfort zone for an internship I didn’t think I deserved. There are a lot of obstacles that may prevent you from getting what you want, but you shouldn’t be one of them.Choose a job you believe in and enjoy. I think the reason I’m successful in my job is that I love the work I’m doing and I believe in the woman I work for…That is so important!

Work ethic is everything. When I got to the White House, I was convinced that it was a fluke—I was surrounded by people with more prestigious degrees than me, all of whom appeared to be experts on things I knew very little about. At the end of the day, I realized that the only thing that really matters is how hard you work. The key to standing out as an intern, and standing out as a staffer (who is then promoted) is to be the first one in each morning and the last to leave every night, and to do the best work you can do—those are the things people notice.

Be a team player. Being a good co-worker and someone that people enjoy working with is half the equation. In my job, we work long hours with a small group of people–being someone that people want to see when they walk into work in the morning and enjoy being around until they leave late at night is crucial.

You managed the rap the First Lady did for Reach Higher, which was amazing! Can you tell us a little about how that was brainstormed and how it eventually came to life?
Last October, as part of the First Lady’s Reach Higher initiative, we launched a new campaign called “Better Make Room.” The goal of this campaign is to share the importance of pursuing higher education with Gen-Z in a way that is authentic to teens and reaches them where they are. That meant changing up our approach to social media, enlisting partners and influencers (like LeBron James and Ciara) who teens look up to, and using unconventional approaches…like rapping.

When CollegeHumor came to us with the rap, we thought it was hilarious–and the First Lady loved it. Then I got on the phone with Jay Pharoah’s team, and they loved the ideas as much as we did. Once an idea like this gets approved, the hard work begins.

As you can imagine, when filming a video like this at the White House, there are a lot of questions about logistics (Can you set up a sound studio in the Map Room?) and discussions about lyrics… and to our knowledge, no one had filmed a music video at the White House before, so there wasn’t a lot to go off. By the end of it, I had CollegeHumor on speed dial.

When it came time to roll out the video, we knew it would make some news, but we had no idea just how amazing the pickup would be. Everyone from the Today Show to People Magazine to Revolt covered it, it topped the Billboard charts, and it won a Webby. But, for me, the way I knew the video broke through was hearing a third grader whisper to the First Lady, “I heard you rap about college.” That to me is the definition of success.

What has been your favorite communications project to manage so far?
There have been so many fun ones–one of the first events for Better Make Room was a rally with LeBron James and hundreds of students in Akron, Ohio. The energy in the room was incredible! After the event, the First Lady and Mr. James joined Mike Wilbon for an interview for ESPN–and the kids in the room asked incredible questions.

Recently, we filmed a scene for NCIS at the White House for the 5th Anniversary of Joining Forces. That was the first time we’ve filmed a TV show at the White House–and figuring out how to make it work was like putting together a bunch of puzzle pieces… It turned out great, and more than 18 million viewers tuned in for that episode!

Were you drawn to communications before working for the First Lady or was this something you discovered once you began working there? 
I started my career in the mail room, literally. I interned in the First Lady’s Correspondence Department the semester after I graduated, and my first job was as the deputy director of correspondence for the First Lady. I later moved on to be the director of that department, and then I moved into my current job as the deputy press secretary to the First Lady.

After spending a few years in correspondence, I knew I eventually wanted to move to a different role within the office. I started helping different departments within the First Lady’s Office on various projects to see what interested me–and I loved the projects I worked on for our communications team. Slowly, they started giving me more and more responsibilities, and my experience helping them led me to my current job.

I’m really grateful to work in an office where people encouraged me to figure out what interested me and allowed me to grow my skill set. That’s something that’s really important to our team and to the First Lady.

 

Name: Kelly Miterko

Location: Washington, D.C., USA
Current title: Deputy Director of Let’s Move!, Communication Office and Let’s Move, The White House
Education: Stony Brook University

You began at the White House as an intern for the First Lady. What made you decide to apply for an internship? Did you always want to work in the D.C. political scene? 
I actually never envisioned working in the D.C. political scene. It wasn’t something I knew a lot about, but as I was nearing my college graduation with a degree in Health Science and concentration in Public Health, I sought out opportunities to gain experience in the field. It was around the same time that the First Lady launched her Let’s Move! initiative, and as soon as I heard about the program, I knew I wanted to contribute to Mrs. Obama’s efforts. Helping other people lead healthy, more fulfilling lives is something that I am deeply passionate about, and the thought of working on it on a national scale for the First Lady was incredibly exciting. Knowing the value of internships, and not knowing how else to get my foot in the door at the White House, I decided to apply to the White House internship program and request a placement in the First Lady’s Office. Thankfully, it worked out!

You have a degree in health science and public health and now work for the First Lady’s Let’s Move! initiative–what a perfect role! How did the opportunity come about to move from being a scheduling assistant and trip coordinator to deputy director on this health initiative?
After having been in the Office of the First Lady for a few years, working hard, learning as much as possible, and seeking out ways to assist the Let’s Move! team, an opportunity to join the team became a reality. It came at an unexpected time, but with my passion for public health and my greater institutional knowledge of the office and the Let’s Move! initiative by the time the opportunity came up, I put myself forward and was selected for the position. Over the course of the next two and half years, I continued to build my knowledge of health and wellness, and ultimately became deputy director.

Through this experience, I’ve learned that you never know what opportunities may arise, and that it’s important to develop good relationships, maintain a strong work ethic, and not be afraid to go after what you want or show how you can be an asset.

It’s important to develop good relationships, maintain a strong work ethic, and not be afraid to go after what you want… – Kelly Miterko

What does your day-to-day job look like as deputy director of the Let’s Move! initiative?
Each day is different! That is what is fun and exciting, but also challenging. There will be any number of meetings or calls to prepare for upcoming events, brainstorm new ideas, or discuss collaboration opportunities. Sometimes those meetings include briefing the First Lady on her participation in an upcoming event or announcement. Days also include preparing and planning content across Let’s Move! online and social media platforms, managing the constant flow of emails, and working on other long-term projects, like our annual Healthy Lunchtime Challenge and Kids’ “State Dinner.” The diversity and demands of the job work for me. I thrive in a fast-paced work environment and enjoy the opportunity to work on multiple aspects of the initiative.

You mention that one of your favorite parts of your job is having kids come to the White House Kitchen Garden. How often do kids come to visit and what do they usually do in the garden?
The White House Kitchen Garden is a truly magical place—for kids and adults! Each year, the First Lady invites students to join her in planting and harvesting the garden. There are a few schools in Washington, DC, that regularly help with the garden, and the First Lady has invited students from across the country to participate over the years as well. In the spring, students join the First Lady in planting a variety of seeds and seedlings in the garden, which then grow into produce that is used by the White House chefs in meals for the First Family and guests at White House events. In the summer and fall, students join the First Lady in harvesting the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor. Following the harvest, the First Lady and students work with the White House chefs to prepare a delicious meal made with produce straight from the garden, and everyone sits and eats together beside the garden.

We also open up the White House Kitchen Garden to others throughout the year. For example, at the recent Nordic State Dinner, guests had a chance to stop by and walk through the garden prior to enjoying the dinner, which actually included vegetables and herbs from the garden. The White House also hosts Garden Tours twice a year where the public can walk around the south lawn and see the garden. In addition, we coordinate visits for school and community groups that participate in garden programs to tour the garden from spring through fall. And now we even have an Instagram account for the garden–@WHKitchenGarden–so even more people have a chance to see the garden and watch it grow throughout the year.

What attracted you most to a career in public health? What other career paths did you consider aside from working on the Let’s Move! initiative?
I grew up leading a healthy, active lifestyle. My mom prepared healthy, home-cooked meals, and we tried to sit and eat together as a family as much as possible. I also played a variety of sports and was always a very active kid. The healthy environment that my family created and supported definitely shaped the way I live my life today, and I’ve come to greatly appreciate my parents having instilled these habits in me early on. After learning the negative consequences of leading an unhealthy lifestyle and knowing that if a person is not in good health, he or she is not able to live the best, most prosperous life possible, I knew I wanted to help others lead healthier lives. I thought about other careers in medicine involving clinical care, but as soon as I learned more about public health, focusing on health promotion and prevention and instituting community-wide change, I knew that’s where I wanted to take my career focus.

What are you most proud of from your time so far on the Let’s Move! initiative?
It’s so hard to choose one moment or policy or program to be the most proud of in my time here. It is truly an honor to work on the Let’s Move! initiative and play a small role in helping kids and families across the country lead healthier lives. It has been a humbling and rewarding experience hearing stories about the impact of the initiative on people’s lives.

One of my favorites is managing our annual Healthy Lunchtime Challenge and Kids’ “State Dinner.” Through the challenge, kids ages 8-12 are invited to create a healthy recipe, and a winning recipe from each U.S state, territory, and D.C. is selected to come to the White House for the Kids’ “State Dinner.” The kids have amazing stories and often go on to become incredible ambassadors in their communities after being inspired at the event to pay their experience forward. Some kids have started their own programs and nonprofits to help provide healthy snacks to their peers and those in their communities who have limited access to healthy food. They may go on to be the next leaders in helping create a healthier generation, and it’s exciting to play a role in creating an opportunity to encourage them to take action and to understand the impact that they can have on the health of their community and our country.

Did you miss Parts 1 and 2 of the FLOTUS staff series? Read them here and here