Meet the Obama White House Alum Working to Increase Access for Young Women in Politics

Source: Deesha Dyer

Landing an internship is one of the key ways for young people to build connections and experience in a desired field. But, with 43% of internships still unpaid, many students face financial challenges when it comes to finding an opportunity that's right for them.

That's why Deesha Dyer, former White House intern turned social secretary for the Obama administration, created the Black Girl 44 Scholarship. The scholarship fund, started in 2019, provides financial assistance to Black women in college who are interning in politics or public service. Currently, minority students and women are overrepresented in unpaid internships, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, and Dyer is hoping to provide some level of support to those burdened by finances.



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In her fund's first year, Dyer awarded $1,500 scholarships to six young women thanks to generous donations from 55 donors, many of whom are former Obama staffers. This year, with the help of over 100 donors including former Obama Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, Dyer plans to award 10 young ladies with $1,000 in scholarships each.

To qualify, students must fill out the scholarship application by May 7, have an internship in politics or public service already secured and they must be enrolled in an undergraduate program at an accredited college/university.

"I want young women to know that there is financial assistance," Dyer tells CNBC Make It, while noting that there was no Black Girl 44 Scholarship in 2020 due to the pandemic. "Is it a lot? No, it's not a lot. But it could make the difference between them actually applying for an internship."

In addition to money, Dyer emphasizes that scholarship winners will also be given the opportunity to participate in exclusive workshops and mentoring sessions with other Black women in politics and public service.

Deesha Dyer, Obama White House alum and founder of the Black Girl 44 Scholarship.
Source: Winnie Au
Deesha Dyer, Obama White House alum and founder of the Black Girl 44 Scholarship.

Dyer, who is now the founder of the social impact firm Impact of a Vote, remembers the financial hurdles she had to overcome when interning for the White House in the fall of 2009. At the time, she was a 31-year-old community college student working as a secretary for a real estate company in Philadelphia. Upon finding out that she got the internship, Dyer traveled to Washington, D.C. to apply to part-time roles at local grocery stores to make ends meet. However, she soon learned that the odds of her making any side money were slim as the White House had strict rules about interns holding outside jobs.

Thankfully for Dyer, she says her co-workers and boss at the real estate company pooled their financial resources and gave her more than enough money to cover her living expenses.

"So I had about $15,000 when I went into my internship, but I had no idea that I was getting that until a week before I left for D.C.," she says, while explaining that she had already made arrangements to rent out a room she found on Craigslist for $350 a month.

Instead of spending all of the money that she received from her job, Dyer saved a good portion of it, which came in handy as she worked to figure out her next career move.

"That money helped me out later on because when I got back from my internship, I actually quit my job," she says. "I was like, I'll live on this money until I find something else because I didn't want to go back... it was the first time I did something so amazing like interning at the White House and I was just like 'What else can I do?'"

After her internship ended in December 2009, Dyer stayed in touch with White House staff members and was fortunate enough to land a full-time position a few months later. In June 2010, Dyer joined the White House as an associate director of schedule programming, before being promoted to hotel director, deputy social secretary and eventually special assistant to the president and social secretary. During her time as social secretary, she coordinated Pope Francis' White House visit in 2015, led planning on state dinners with world leaders and booked celebrities for numerous White House events.

Looking back, the 2019 Harvard Kennedy School fellow says she knows that her career journey would not have been possible if it wasn't for her internship experience. That's why her hope for the Black Girl 44 Scholarship is to not only provide financial assistance to young Black women in politics and public service, but to also provide the confidence they need to apply for their desired internship.

"We know that money is an issue, especially for Black and Brown people, but for students who want to intern, confidence is a bigger issue," Dyer says. "And when we have the confidence issue and the financial burden of internships, we know that if students think they won't get an internship then they just don't apply."

Her hope, she says, is that the scholarship "pushes people to the edge in saying, 'I can do this. I'm going to apply for the internship and I'm going to apply for this scholarship and get it.'"

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