Shasti Conrad '07, a Sullivan scholar and Honors alum, quickly made her mark when she came to Seattle University from Oregon. As the founding president of the Oxfam student club, she worked with the university’s food service, Bon Appetit, to ensure that only fair trade coffee would be used on campus. When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, Oxfam hosted a week of events to raise funds for rebuilding. With the Seattle University Youth Initiative, she helped students at Bailey Gatzert Elementary School to improve their reading skills. But it was the Sociology major’s thesis on social activism that paved the way for her work at the White House.
“I looked at social activism among the hip-hop community,” Conrad said. “I was interested in how to get young people involved in politics, particularly young people of color.”
After graduating and spending some time abroad, Conrad came back to Washington state to work as a field organizer on the 2008 Obama for President campaign. Another alum, Alyson Palmer, class of 2006, had joined the campaign in Indiana and following the election was asked to put together the White House intern program. Upon her suggestion, Conrad applied and became one of only 100 interns headed to Washington, D.C., as a presidential intern.
“I joined the White House Office of Urban Affairs,” Conrad said. “It was a new office focused on how the federal government could partner with cities to revitalize urban communities.”
It didn’t’ take long before Conrad became the staff assistant to Kareem Dale, Special Assistant to the President on Disability Policy. Conrad travelled with Dale, a civil rights lawyer who is partially blind, briefed him on issues and the people he would be meeting, and served as his reader.
By the summer of 2010, Conrad had drawn the attention of Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President. Jarrett oversees the Offices of Intergovernmental Affairs; Public Engagement; and Olympic, Paralympic, and Youth Sport. Conrad moved to the West Wing to serve as her executive assistant.
“I slept with my Blackberry on vibrate,” Conrad said. “It was the summer of the oil spill in the Gulf Coast, the first debt ceiling crisis, and the Middle East in turmoil.”
Sitting close to the seat of power, Conrad developed an appreciation for leaders and leadership. She realized that even the most powerful have the same concerns as everyone else.
“They have kids. They want to do well. They get nervous before a speech,” she said. “Regardless of their political views, they chose public service and want to make things better.”
An experience with U2's Bono was a highlight: “I told him I had gone to Seattle University, and he told me how much he valued the work of the Jesuits. We bonded over the Jesuits.”
Conrad left the White House to work as the briefings director on the 2012 re-election campaign for President Obama, returned to D.C. to assist with the inauguration on the Vice President's team, and has now returned to the Puget Sound area.
Reflecting on her experience with the President and his team, Conrad stressed the importance of her experiences at Seattle University:
“I felt like my classes and the campus communities I was a part of always stressed the connection between the work we were doing and how we made a difference for the greater good. Beyond my own personal enrichment, those experiences gave me a strong sense of the importance of working with a purpose. When I joined the Obama campaign and later worked at the White House, I knew that I was in the right place because I felt the same way I had during the best moments I had at Seattle U. Being able to recognize and create meaningful community has been one of the most valuable lessons I ever learned at Seattle U. and something that I brought with me to the White House and take with me wherever I go.”
In September, Conrad begins the Master’s in Public Affairs program at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. She plans to focus on international development.
“I was a kid from Oregon walking the halls of the White House where the first black President of the United States lives,” she recalled. “People were engaged, interesting, and looked like me. The experience opened up doors for me that I would never have believed possible.”