By Becca Starkes
Hugh McDermott ’11 had no way of knowing in 2008 how a presidential candidate’s visit to the College of Charleston during his freshman year would shape his career and put him on a path to a job in the White House.
That candidate was then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, whose campaign speech in the Cistern Yard on Jan. 10, 2008, inspired McDermott to volunteer for the campaign and to pursue a double major in political science and communication.
Following McDermott’s graduation and after working his way up through several positions in Washington D.C., including a stint at the U.S. Department of Commerce, McDermott’s life came full circle in 2015 when he accepted a position as scheduler to First Lady Michelle Obama. Since then, he’s traveled around the world on high-profile trips as a member of the First Lady’s staff, visiting the Middle East, Cuba and other locations in support of her initiatives.
McDermott recently took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions for The College Today. Read on to learn more about his CofC experience, how he met his fiancee and why he believes not having a specific career plan after graduation is not necessarily a bad thing.
Q: Why did you choose CofC, and what was your college experience like?
Having grown up outside of Boston, I’m often asked how I ended up going to school in Charleston, and my answer is always the same: just visit and you’ll understand. From the first time I stepped foot on campus, I knew I was right where I needed to be. The historic campus, the vibrant city, and the beautiful weather were the perfect combination for a college experience.
Above all else, the relationships I made were the most important part of my four (and a half) years. I met my now fiancee, Hope Palmer ‘11, when we were paired together in a communication class our senior year (thank you CofC for making Research Methods a requirement).
Many of my best friends today are the same friends who I hung out with late at night on King Street, went to RiverDogs baseball games with in the spring, and studied with (at least some of them) in Addlestone Library during finals weeks.
The City of Charleston is what drew me in, but it was my college experience that shaped who I am today.
Q: Did you know what types of positions you wanted to apply for after graduation?
No. I truthfully did not have a clear vision of exactly where I wanted to be or what I wanted to do after graduation. In retrospect, that uncertainty was my greatest asset. It allowed me to experience the real world through trial and error, and as a result of that exploration I was able to find my skillsets and passion. If there’s a small sliver of advice I can offer to graduates who aren’t certain of their next steps, it’s to embrace the uncertainty until you find what is right for you. It may take some time to find your passion, but once you do, you will be amazed to see how quickly your career will take shape.
Q: What was it like working for the Department of Commerce?
I learned a tremendous amount about the role of the federal government in my time at Commerce and was in a unique position in the deputy secretary’s office to see both the internal and external facing functions of a federal agency. In my position, I often had the opportunity to interface with high-level business leaders, foreign ministers, and U.S. government officials. This exposure taught me a lot about public-private partnerships, the role of the U.S. government at home and abroad, and the relationship between federal agencies and the White House. My greatest takeaway from my experience at Commerce, though, was the relationships I made, and still have today, with my former colleagues and many of the folks I met along the way.
Q: Describe your role as Scheduler to the First Lady and what it’s like to manage the time of such an important and busy person.
In my role in the First Lady’s Scheduling and Advance Office, I am responsible for overseeing the First Lady’s schedule, planning domestic and foreign travel, and managing our advance teams for events. I have also had the opportunity to travel internationally, most recently as a part of the First Lady and President’s historic trip to Cuba and Argentina.
The job of managing the First Lady’s schedule was daunting at first. I quickly learned how I could transfer my experience and skills from my previous jobs to this one, which helped reduce the learning curve. In this position, I am also very fortunate to be surrounded by an incredibly smart, talented, and experienced team who all share the same passion for public service and who are equally dedicated to advancing the First Lady’s initiatives.
Q: What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve learned at the White House?
Relationships matter. I’ve learned through experience and observation (in this job and previous ones) that relationships are extremely important in the workplace, especially in high-stress work environments. What’s important to remember in most jobs is that you and your colleagues are working towards a common goal and that goal will most easily be achieved through collaboration. This is especially important in a workplace like the White House, where we work to serve the people. It’s critical that we develop and maintain strong working relationships to ensure that the highest quality of work is produced.
Watch the video below as The Verge goes behind the scenes to learn how First Lady Michelle Obama mastered social media.
Q: What’s the most interesting event for which you have scheduled The First Lady?
In November 2015 I had the opportunity to travel to the Middle East with the First Lady, as part of her mission to visit U.S. troops abroad. Conan O’Brien joined our delegation to visit the remote Al-Udeid Air Base outside of Doha, Qatar, where he and the First Lady visited service members and their families.
During the visit, the First Lady and Conan sat down with 30 U.S. service members to discuss what life was like on the base and to thank them for their service. The First Lady then gave a speech to a screaming crowd of 3,000 service members and their families, and Conan performed a live show from the base. The expressions of these military families, who had sacrificed so much in their own lives and for this country, were so moving to witness. Many of them were overcome with joy to see two American icons visiting them thousands of miles from home, and coming to not only thank them for their service, but also to reaffirm the commitment of the First Lady and Dr. Jill Biden’s Joining Forces initiative to fully support our service members and our veterans after they leave the military.
That trip was incredibly momentous for me, but every event has its own unique impact. Whether it was The First Lady’s speech at the Special Olympics in July of 2015 or her surprise garden visits to local elementary schools in February 2016, it has been truly incredible to see the reactions of people who are so deeply moved by her presence. She has been such a positive influence for so many people throughout her 7 ½ years.
Q: How did your political science and communication degrees help prepare you for the positions you’ve held?
The world of politics fascinated me early on in college, and as luck would have it, then-Sen. Obama made a campaign stop to the Cistern Yard during my freshman year in 2008. I was captivated by his campaign, and I went on to locally volunteer that year in Charleston. Those were my first political and campaign experiences, and I was hooked.
Those personal interests carried over to my academic life, as I chose to double major in political science and communication. Though I didn’t know it then, these subject areas provided me with the fundamental resources I would need for my future jobs out of college. This was true not only in the substance of what I learned but also through the diversity of thoughts and opinions of classmates and the teaching style of faculty.
I’m indebted to so many of my professors in both majors for transforming and challenging my ways of thinking and for helping to develop and strengthen my writing. In particular, I’m grateful to John Creed for pushing me to my academic limits in Middle East Politics (as I’m sure others will attest) and Joyce Barrett in my communication classes for bringing such real-life experience and instruction to the classroom.
This article was written by Becca Starkes ’16 of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, who majored in communication at the Honors College at the College of Charleston and was a writing intern for The College Today.