Whitney Harbour organized her first political campaign in 1996 for presidential candidate Bob Dole. Of course, she was only in the 4th grade at the time, but that may explain why she's now a political science major at East Central University who one day wants to run for the Legislature and later serve in the U.S. Senate.
"My family was always talking about politics," she recalled. "That was very influential for me."
Today, amid all the speculation about which candidates will be on the presidential ballot in November, Harbour has new insight into politics, government and power, thanks to a prestigious program she completed last summer in Washington, D.C.
She was one of 300 participants accepted into a summer institute hosted by the Fund for American Studies at Georgetown University, a program that offers three college credit classes, a competitive eight-week internship and built-in networking with well-known, successful people in politics and business.
She also received four possible job offers, now has a network of both influential contacts and undergraduates across the country, and got a taste of big-city life.
It seems ironic, she said, that after eight weeks immersed in government and politics in Washington, she met presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani in Ada last September. She was the only ECU student who attended a local fundraising dinner for the former New York City mayor.
Harbour said adjusting to Washington took about a week, but she really missed it when she left.
"I never really noticed how slow life is down here until I had lived in a big city like D.C. and then came back. It was quite an adjustment," she said
Some would say her life is not so slow in Oklahoma. By the time she graduated from Turner High School in Burneyville, she had earned 27 college credits through distance education or online classes, enough to almost complete her freshman year at ECU before she ever left home. She is a senior and will graduate a year early this spring.
Harbour, who was a Freshman Orientation leader/mentor last semester, holds down a job on the ECU campus, is president of ECU's Academy of Communication Arts, parliamentarian of the College Republicans and is in the middle of basketball season as a guard for ECU's Lady Tigers.
She plans to stay at ECU next year and complete a master's degree in criminal justice so she can continue to play basketball.
"I still have two years of eligibility left for basketball," she said, "and I really, really want to take advantage of that while I still have the chance."
Her internship helped polish her career goals, she said. Before she runs for a legislative office, she wants to work in Washington for a few years, earn a law degree and practice international law. Harbour said she has always been extremely competitive and motivated about everything she does, not just basketball, and thinks that will give her an advantage in politics.
Students from all over the world apply to the Fund for American Studies, Harbour said. She did not expect to be accepted, but when she was, her family "was scared to death" about her living in Washington.
"People think people are shooting each other there all the time," she said. "It is a lot different, but not bad. I didn't see people die," she quipped. "Once I got there, they (family) were okay.
"There was a bomb threat at the White House that freaked them out," she added. "The D.C. police were on the (Georgetown) campus twice. Two girls were robbed at gunpoint. But as long as I called every day, they were fine."
Harbour said the experience was very exciting, one that she would recommend to other students.
"It was intimidating the first week," she admitted. "After that, it was like I became residential in a week. I'd ignore people, but I didn't mean to. You don't pay attention to anyone. You have to be very focused on getting where you're going. To be successful, you can't be wide eyed all the time."
Traffic is intense and life is very fast paced, she said.
"I almost got killed by a BMW the first week," she said with a twinkle in her eye. "It's a different mentality there."
She used the same fare card the "locals" use for faster access to the Metro, the rail transit system, which "was really cool," she said. "Being residential was fun."
To keep in shape, Harbour frequently ran in the Georgetown area in the early mornings or evenings.
"John F. Kennedy lived in 10 houses in Georgetown," she said. "I would run by and touch each one of them. Every once in awhile I would see Marine One, the president's helicopter, fly over as I crossed the Francis Scott Key Bridge on the Potomac River and I would wave real big," she said.
Harbour worked in a building next to the White House and ate a sandwich on the run every day across the street at Lafayette Park. She was an intern for the Business Industry Political Action Committee, a nonpartisan organization that enables more effective business participation in the political process. She worked mainly in its Prosperity Project, a grassroots program that gives information to voters about political candidates. BIPAC pushes for pro-business candidates.
"My job was to research candidates for state and congressional offices and update the internet portal with their bios and some of the issues in order to get the voter more knowledgeable about the candidates," she said.
"I had never worked from 9 to 5. I had the Dolly Parton song in my mind a lot," she said with a smile.
Her internship included briefings at the White House, State Department, Capitol and Washington embassies. She attended and took notes at random committee meetings and met with members of Congress BIPAC was lobbying.
"We got to hear a lot of inside stuff. I can't tell you, or I'll have to kill you," she said with a laugh.
In addition to her three Georgetown classes, Harbour attended a two-hour lecture on Monday nights to hear lawyers, lobbyists, representatives from business and health care and syndicated columnists such as Robert Novak and Walter Williams.
"The coolest part was seeing representatives and senators," she said. "They're really accessible."
She also spotted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's entourage going into a Georgetown restaurant.
"You know where people go to eat - so you can hang out there and watch them," she joked.
Unlike some internship programs, the Fund for American Studies cost Harbour $7,000, minus a $1,500 scholarship. The cost did include, however, tuition for her three classes, housing, recreational activities and setting up a network of influential business and political contacts. The cost is worth it, she said, because networking is the biggest way to get a job in D.C. and the program opened lots of doors for job opportunities.
"I really am grateful for my experiences in Washington," she said. "I speak regularly with friends, roommates, other interns, coworkers and my boss. I made so many lifelong friends and so many connections."
Harbour even appeared on national television on July 4.
"We were in line for the 'A Capitol Fourth' concert. They gave us all flags and we ran up and got in the front rows," she explained. "There were 500,000 people there and they had to evacuate everyone because of a tornado warning.
"Hundreds of us were in a garage for 1.5 hours. When it was clear, everybody ran back. We had to pass through security again. We wanted to be up front for the show."
And she was. The camera panned the audience on the west lawn of the capitol and caught her during Bebe Neuwirth's performance, a moment her mother recorded on tape. She also was in the background at the Washington Monument during Fox News' tornado warning coverage.
She is the daughter of Rhonda Miller of Falconhead Resort near Burneyville and the granddaughter of Jack and Valerie Hagood of Ringling.
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