White House Fellows

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Every year, the White House Fellows program offers a small number of America's most promising young leaders an opportunity to participate in government at the highest levels. The White House Fellows program is one of the most prestigious and selective fellowship programs for leadership development and public service in the country. White House Fellows are selected by the President's Commission on White House Fellowships, a nonpartisan commission of thirty to forty leading American citizens representing a range of backgrounds and professions. All commission members are appointed by the president; many are former White House Fellows.

Selection Process

Any citizen of the United States who believes that he or she has leadership qualities, the ability to function effectively at the highest levels of government, and a commitment to serve the country may apply for the White House Fellowship program. The competition is extraordinarily keen with 500 to 800 applicants to fill only eleven to nineteen positions each year. There are no age restrictions for admittance to the program, but most Fellows are in their early thirties. Applications must be submitted by February 1 for the fellowship year beginning September 1 and running till the end of August the following year. Candidates may be nominated by universities, colleges, professional associations, or other groups, but the majority of candidates apply on their own initiative.

A screening committee of the President's Commission reads and rates the applications, referring about 100 of the most impressive applicants to ten regional panels for further screening. Applicants are evaluated on the basis of their professional and academic accomplishments, as well as on their potential for growth as leaders. The regional panels designate regional finalists, interview them, and recommend national finalists to the President's Commission. All finalists must undergo background checks to ensure that they qualify for the security clearances necessary to work in the White House. After further interviews over a period of several days, the President's Commission makes its choices known to the president, who then appoints the White House Fellows. The new class of White House Fellows is announced every year in early June.

Job Assignments

White House Fellows perform various functions for their respective principles in the executive branch of the federal government. The commission staff determines each Fellow's job assignment in consultation with the government officials for whom they will be working. Fellows may work as assistants to the vice president, cabinet officers, agency heads, and other top-ranking government officials. Often, Fellows serve as troubleshooters, working on whatever problem requires immediate attention in the highest ranks of their agencies and departments. They may also prepare reports, write speeches, help draft legislation, chair meetings, and conduct briefings. Fellows are paid a salary at federal pay grade GS-14/Step 3 (about $80,000 in 2001) and are not allowed to receive compensation from any other source during their fellowship year.

Educational Program

Despite their services to the government, many White House Fellows argue that the immediate benefits of the program flow mainly in their direction. First, their job experience gives them a unique opportunity for understanding the operations of one government department or agency, including the style and methods of top decision makers. In addition, the president's commission operates an education program that provides Fellows with an understanding of areas of government outside of those to which they have been assigned, as well as a knowledge of the major issues and problems with which the government must cope. In this way, the education program supplements job experience.

In a typical year's education series, White House Fellows meet off-the-record with cabinet secretaries, Supreme Court justices, members of Congress, military leaders, and foreign heads of state. Fellows may also meet with governors, mayors, sociologists, urban planners, scientists, representatives of interest groups, foreign service officers, foreign policy-makers, fiscal experts, business and labor leaders, and commentators from the press and academic circles. White House Fellows are also offered the opportunity to travel to major American cities, foreign countries, and military bases to explore government and policy in action. These activities help Fellows develop an increased understanding of the challenges facing American society and a greater sensitivity to the role of the federal government in dealing with these challenges.


The White House Fellows program was established in October 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson for the purpose of enabling the U.S. government to benefit from the services of the large numbers of bright, able, and talented citizens not ordinarily seeking careers in government. The program was a result of the concern expressed by John W. Gardner, then president of the Carnegie Corporation, and shared by President Johnson that the contributions of such citizens were not directly benefiting the government and the nation except in times of national crisis, such as during a war. During its first years, the White House Fellows program was supported entirely by private grant funds. Major support was provided by the Carnegie Corporation and the Ford Foundation, and David Rockefeller made a sizable personal donation to the commission. Gradually, however, the costs of the program have shifted to the federal government.

Since 1964 many former White House Fellows have made significant marks in various fields. Former Fellows of note include Doris Kearns Goodwin (19671968 Fellow), who became a Pulitzer Prizewinning author, historian, and television commentator; Henry Cisneros (19711972 Fellow), who became mayor of San Antonio, Texas, and secretary of Housing and Urban Development during the Clinton administration; Colin Powell (19721973 Fellow), who became a general in the U.S. Army, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and secretary of state during the administration of George W. Bush; Wesley Clark (19751976 Fellow), who became a general in the U.S. Army and supreme allied commander, Europe; William Roper (19821983 Fellow), who became dean of the University of North Carolina School of Public Health and director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); Elaine L. Chao (19831984 Fellow), who became president and chief executive officer of the United Way of America and director of the Peace Corps; and Paul Gigot (19861987 Fellow), who became a columnist and editor for the Wall Street Journal.

internet resource

White House Fellows Program. 2002. <www.whitehouse.gov/fellows>.

Stephen P. Strickland

Revised by

Judith J. Culligan