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From DU to the White House

DU alum Ellie Sue Schafer poses outside the MFJS Building in October 2013When a high school career aptitude test suggested she was best suited to work outdoors as a highway construction flagger, Ellie Sue Schafer (BA '90) couldn't quite imagine herself directing traffic for the rest of her life. Ignoring those test results, she found herself in politics and eventually into a career directing something else: visitors to the White House.

Last week Schafer talked with DU students about her career in politics and how she went from a student at the University of Denver to special assistant to the President and director of the White House Visitors Program in Washington, D.C.

"My career path made sense to no one but me," she told a group of communication students. "I knew what I wanted to do and what I wanted to be, I just didn't know how to get there."

Shafer's career goals weren't as clearly defined as an undergraduate student. Her coursework in mass communications exposed her to a variety of communication-based topics such as media law, film and journalism. One of her favorite DU memories was a class visit to Hollywood.

"It was real-world experience in action. We learned from actors, producers and directors. Just seeing things like that as a student was awesome," she told students. At the time, a career in film seemed like a fun and viable option.

After graduation, however, the pull of politics proved to be too strong to ignore. She accepted a position as communications director for a congressional race, thinking the experience would be a good entre into politics. She remembers: "I dig this political thing. I have been politically active my whole life, so it seemed like a natural progression of my career."

One campaign led to another as she found herself immersed deeper into politics. She was even willing to accept entry-level positions in order to compensate for experience in some areas. "If I was missing out on a job it was because I was missing experience in a particular field. So I'd take a step back and get experience to get caught up. You miss opportunities when you walk around with blinders on."

Her political experience continued and grew into campaigning for then U.S. Senator Barack Obama. "I so very much believed he was the right person for this country and the world. That's why I was willing to do everything I had to do. I cut my pay, traveled a gazillion miles and worked hard," Shafer told students. Her hard work on the campaign trail paid off with President Obama's first election and she joined his staff soon thereafter.

Her life as director of the White House Visitors Program exposes her daily to world leaders, politicians, celebrities and everyday guests that make the trek to D.C. to see the world famous presidential residence. At the White House, she relies heavily on her communication training from DU.

"My job is about the experience of visiting the white house and we do that through messaging. Everything we do is conveying something, whether it's a message to our guests, the media or visiting politicians."

Students and faculty were inspired by her frank talk and appreciated her candor in speaking about her career path.

"Her passion, humor and down-to-earth talk really connected with our students. She helped the students see how important it is to be open to opportunities and not set up your life with blinders because you may miss your true calling," said Media, Film and Journalism Studies Department Chair Renee Botta.

To read more about Schafer and her work, visit Denver Magazine.