White House Communications Director Jen Psaki ’00 first visited the College of William and Mary on a clear, sunny day in April. After touring campus with her mother, she called her father and told him that she was going to attend the College.
“Everybody was so friendly and patient and kind and I think sometimes you just have a gut feeling about where you should go to school and where you should end up,” Psaki said. “I had that feeling.”
Originally from Stamford, Conn., Psaki first heard about the College in eighth grade when a high school senior on her swim team was accepted. Several years later, Psaki applied when a friend gave her an extra application.
She was accepted and assigned to live in Dupont Hall. Psaki said she made friends quickly.
“I know this is a long time ago, but we were one of the only dorms at the time that had air conditioning. That was sort of a nice thing,” Psaki said. “I remember waiting in line and there was another freshman in line, I think in front or behind me, [Glenn Ballard ’00]. He was very friendly and we were talking to him. My mother still asked about him, years later, because we had met him in line. I ended up staying in touch with him after college.”
Psaki said that navigating freshman orientation could be overwhelming at times, but she bonded with a number of hall mates who continued to be her friends throughout college and she joined the swim team.
“You know the swim team became an early family for me, and I think for many of us, when I first got to campus,” Psaki said. “I remember meeting people who I immediately had something in common with because we all had grown up through this sport and loved this sport. I still remember the first meeting we had where I met some of the other swimmers. Some of the swimmers who were freshmen with me are my closest friends still today. So even though I only swam freshman and sophomore year, I think that the greatest value I gained from it were the people I met through the experience.“
Psaki was involved in numerous other extra curricular activities while at the College. She said that her decision to become a campus tour guide and an intern in the admissions office reflected her wish to recreate her positive first experience at the College.
“The tour I had [as a prospective student] made such an impression on me, and the campus is such a beautiful campus with such an incredible history. It was something that I just thought would be a fun part of being a member of the College community,” Psaki said.
Her favorite spot to take tour groups was the Crim Dell Bridge, which she described as one of the most beautiful spots on campus.
Psaki didn’t originally plan on joining a sorority, but she accompanied several hall mates in the recruitment process. Ultimately, she joined the Omicron Beta chapter of Chi Omega at the College. She described her experience with the sorority as a fun outlet that enabled her to meet yet another group of friends on campus.
Psaki lived in Sorority Court her junior and senior year. The location was conveniently located across the street from her favorite building on campus, St. George Tucker Hall. Psaki said she appreciated the building — which has since been renovated — for its “old school” interior and proximity to the Sir Christopher Wren Building and the Sunken Garden.
An English and sociology major, Psaki said that she enjoyed the classes she took in the academic building.
“I’m grateful that I was an English major,” Psaki said. “There are not that many schools that have the liberal arts education-based curriculum where … you develop the skills to become a strong writer and read a [diverse amount] of literature and I think that has been a strong basis for me moving forward. It was a fun major too. I took all sorts of English classes in different genres and that’s something I think that you’re not able to do if you choose a different, more modern major, I would say.”
Associate professor of sociology Tom Linneman taught Psaki in her time here.
“She was a real go-getter and a good student,” Linneman said in an email.
From athletics to academics to extracurricular activities, Psaki said she was grateful to the College for giving her the opportunity to take on so much during her years as an undergraduate.
She said her greatest challenge was figuring out what she wanted to do after graduation.
“I always felt I went to the right school and chose the right major and found the people who are still my best friends,” Psaki said. “Those weren’t areas I struggled with, but I went through what I think many college students today go through, including at William and Mary, which is the question of, well, I just spent three years or three in a half or four years of working hard and studying and getting involved on campus and experiencing what it’s like to live on my own, but what do I do now?”
At the time, she said that deciding on what she would do immediately after college felt like it would completely determine the course of her future.
“I can tell you in retrospect, fifteen years later, that it does not,” Psaki said. “There’s no right answer or wrong answer. As I look back, I wish I had done something like gone abroad or taken a year to do something interesting and off the beaten path, because once you go down a career path, it’s hard to unravel yourself from that.”
She said that the College’s holistic approach to a liberal arts education prepares graduates for the challenges of the workplace.
“I think it’s served me professionally in many ways, including the fact that it enabled me to develop strong writing skills, spend time really learning how to communicate effectively, but also personally, because I have an incredible support system of friends who are like family at this point in my life,” Psaki said. “They are not people who are involved or who, frankly, care what I do for my career. They are a part of my life that is going to be important to me for the years to come.”
College President Taylor Reveley released a statement commenting on Psaki’s recent appointment to White House Communications Director. Psaki previously served as press secretary for President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign and as spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State.
“Jen Psaki is following in the proud tradition of William & Mary people serving at the highest levels, including the White House staff,” Reveley said in an email. “Her double major here in English and sociology will serve her well as she directs communications for the president of the United States. Jen’s alma mater is proud of her, and we wish her the best in this demanding and important role.”
Psaki has not been back at the College for several years. 2015 will mark the 15th anniversary of her graduation. Some of Psaki’s friends plan to return for homecoming, but Psaki noted that she will have a 3-month old daughter by then. She said she has not yet decided whether or not she will make the trip back to Williamsburg. Still, she said that she will always remember her time at the College.
“People have asked me, ‘Why did you go to William and Mary? Isn’t it a school that’s far from where you grew up? Isn’t it a state school?’ Of course it is, as we all know,” Psaki said. “I have always felt that it was fate that I went there and that it was the exact right place for me. The friends I made and the experiences I had in the classroom and also just outside of the classroom were equally as important. I look back very fondly on the time I had there. I remember just feeling incredibly sad to be leaving college and that’s not something that everyone feels.”