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From DU to the White House

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Greg Glasgow


Jan. 20, 2017, was the end of an era for University of Denver alumna Ellie Schafer (BA ’90), who had spent the previous 10 years working for Barack Obama — the past eight of those as head of the White House Visitors Office.

Schafer’s road to Washington started when she graduated from DU and went to work on her father’s campaign for governor of North Dakota. Alumnus Ed Schafer (MBA ’70) won the race and served from 1992 to 2000.

Her relationship with the Obama campaign began in 2006, when Obama asked Schafer, then working as a political consultant in San Francisco, for logistical help with his book tour. The connection that began with “The Audacity of Hope” led to life on the campaign trail, then to election night 2008, then to eight years of working at the White House.

Ellie Schafer and Barack Obama
Ellie Schafer sits besides President Barack Obama.

Q: What was your final week in the White House like? It had to have been emotional.

A: To go from the book tour to being there when [Obama] announced in 2007, all the way through the campaign, the transition team, the White House — from beginning to end, it’s a dream. It’s something that somebody who works in politics dreams of doing. But it’s really surreal for it to end, to know that Barack Obama has been my boss for a quarter of my life. It’s awesome, but now to not have that is weird.

Q: Will you stay in touch with the people you worked with in the administration?

A: President Obama talks a lot about his ability to create a family. And I really view our campaign as a family. I have had work colleagues that I worked with on a campaign, but this was different. We’re family. It felt like, “I will see them again at the next holiday or the next reunion.” It certainly didn’t have the feeling of, “This is it; goodbye; I’m never going to see you again.” It was more like, “We’ve all been in the trenches together for 10 years, and fought some pretty tough battles, and everybody had each other’s back during that time, and we’re not going anywhere now.” You could tell that the journey and the experiences that we have had together have really kept everybody together and will keep them together in the future. It wasn’t a job. It was more than that.

Q: What about the Obamas? Are they friends for life? Will you stay in touch?

A: They’re friends for life. And that was one of the things that they made very clear to all of us. The President said, “You guys are my family. And we’ll be in touch. We need a vacation first, but we’ll be in touch.” Everybody is so philosophically aligned and energized and motivated and inspired by this president, I have no doubt that we all will stay in touch.

Q: What about you? What’s your next move?

A: I am going to take some time off and figure it out. I’ve been going at a crazy pace for almost 11 years, and I’m not going to do anybody any good coming straight into another job. I have a couple of job prospects in New York and some other places, so I’m going to look at those. It’s been an amazing journey, and I really haven’t had an opportunity to step back and take it all in.

Q: Looking back, do you have any feelings about what you accomplished? Are there things you can point to that stand out as special?

A: We had the mandate of making [the White House] the people’s house, and I feel like we accomplished that. That is really something that I’m proud of. Over the last eight years, we got over 4.5 million people through the White House, just out of my office alone. And you don’t just open the doors and they come in. You handle the logistics and the security and the communication and the guest experience and the troubleshooting for every single one of those 4.5 million people. When I first started, we were receiving tour requests via fax, and by the time I left, we were up on the cloud. And with that comes an incredible efficiency. When I first started, 2 percent of all tours requested were getting approved. And when I left it was 47 percent.

Q: You got a degree in communications from DU in 1990. Were you thinking about working in campaigns while you were pursuing your BA, or were you thinking that far ahead?

A: I was looking at going into radio and television, so that was where my head was. Then my father ran for Congress, so I went to work on his campaign and helped with the communications aspect. That definitely piqued my interest and got me going. I worked on campaigns all over the country, then I landed in San Francisco doing a campaign out there. I loved it, got very involved, worked for a bunch of different candidates, worked for a bunch of different initiatives, and then I worked for Barack Obama. That’s when I said, “I’m all in. This is the guy. Whatever I have to do, I’m going to do.” Once you get that right thing, whether it’s a company or a product, or in my case, a candidate, it just ignites something inside of you. It’s a great feeling, that ability to make a difference in people’s lives and to change things. It’s pretty awesome.

To learn more about Ellie Schafer and her time at the White House, click here to read a University of Denver Magazine story from 2009.