"I've always had an interest in the presidency," said Hillsboro native Tommy Justison of his recent internship at the White House." I can even remember in fifth grade Mrs. Hacke referring to me as Mr. President."
Justison, who is the son of Tom Justison and Pam Schaefer of Hillsboro, is currently a senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he is studying agricultural economics and finance.
Prior to securing an internship at the White House last fall, Justison completed internships with John Deere, Cargill and last summer he worked for Boeing in Seattle, WA.
"While I was at Boeing, I was working on the new Air Force One project, which rekindled my passion for the presidency," he said.
He had a couple of friends suggest applying for the White House internship opportunity. In the end, he would be one of 89 interns selected from a pool of thousands of applicants.
Last September, he finished his internship at Boeing and made the 6,500-mile drive to Washington, DC through the Canadian wilderness.
"I'm kind of an adventurer," he said. "So, I decided to drive through all the Canadian provinces on my way to Washington, DC." Justison, now 22, already hit his goal of visiting all 50 states by his 21st birthday. He now hopes to visit 100 different countries before his 25th birthday, noting he's roughly halfway to that goal.
He arrived in Washington, DC, where he would spend the next three months living about 15 miles outside the city in northern Virginia and taking the Metro to work every day.
"Washington is such a historic city," Justison said. He added that the internship was an amazing opportunity to meet new people and make lifelong connections.
"No matter your feeling of this administration, the White House is truly the people’s house," Justison said. "The people in this administration are people just like everyone else, with a desire to serve their country. It was incredible to be in the company of those so passionate to serve others and of such high caliber."
Although it was hard to define a typical day in his internship, Justison said he worked a regular schedule Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
As part of his internship, Justison worked in the public policy sector helping conduct research on bills and mandates, coordinating with full-time staffers on projects, and aiding in preparing memos. He said he also had the opportunity to go on different tours, hear from a robust speaker series of administration leaders and sit in on meetings.
"It was different every day," he said. "And that's something I really enjoyed."
Justison said interns are truly a functional part of the public government, and that there is always a place for them to do work and feel of service.
"I had some great mentorships and came away with some really great colleagues," he said.
He also learned about the power of connections, and the importance of being willing to do anything asked of you. No matter how small it may seem at the time, the impact can be much greater than you realize.
"The family farm helped teach me that," he said. "DC is a small city, and those who can vouch for your work ethic is important. You have to be willing to jump into a situation, ask questions and learn."
During his internship, Justison said he did have the chance to see or meet President Donald Trump a few times, who even posed for a photo with this term’s class of interns.
"He was very kind," Justison said. "He came and spent time with us, shook every intern's hand and said he appreciated all our work."
The internship experience added perspective to the classroom lessons he's learned at the University of Illinois. He said he is always trying to challenge himself, taking classes outside his particular realm of study. And he's grateful for professors who appreciate experiential learning and support his interest in traveling.
This semester, Justison is back on campus in Champaign, where he is poised to graduate in December. During the summer months, he's hoping to secure another internship, helping back on the family farm, or completing more of his travel and entrepreneurial goals.
After graduation, Justison said his plan is to work first in the private sector. The internship, however, opened his eyes to working in the federal government. His dream job is eventually to run for public office.
“I believe service is one of the most important talents God blesses us with," he said. "It takes only a passion for helping others and your time to make a difference. Public office is and should be an opportunity to put others before yourself.”
Justison hopes also in the future to be able to continue to grow and see prosper his family's farm in Montgomery County with his father, uncle, aunt and cousins.
"I really want to thank my family, friends and mentors," he said. "I have never believed in anyone saying any success they have had is self-made. I think every one of us is a product of those who invest in our lives and I have been incredibly lucky to have such an incredible support system at home, from my family, my friends and my home town.”
Justison encourages anyone interested in applying for an internship at the White House to reach out to him.
"It was a wonderful opportunity to see a larger picture of what goes on in government," he said. "It's been a once in a lifetime opportunity and a truly amazing experience."