Listening to the Nation

Derek Cantu '14 meets with then U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood '71 in Washington, D.C.

By Frank Radosevich II
February 1, 2013

Receiving and responding to feedback from the American people—all 313 million of them—is a monumental task for a presidential administration. And it’s one job that Bradley senior Derek Cantu understands well.

As a fall intern for the White House Office of Presidential Correspondence, Cantu spent five days a week listening to the nation. The office where he worked, housed just blocks from the White House, handles the president’s official correspondence with private citizens, civic organizations or elected officials and sends out presidential proclamations, messages and greetings.

During his internship, Cantu helped sort, read, catalog and respond to the mountain of letters, e-mails and faxes that passed through the office daily. He also manned the White House comment line, a telephone line citizens can call to have their remarks passed along to the president or directed by staffers to the appropriate department.

His time in the nation’s capital came about through Bradley’s partnership with the Washington Center, an academic program where Bradley students can explore politics and government through experiential learning.

“I want to get into politics somewhere down the road and what better place to go than Washington, D.C.?” said Cantu, an education major with a concentration in history.

Cantu not only worked for the government but also participated in a course on the relationship between politics and the media during the presidential election. The class featured discussions with guest speakers, which were recorded and televised through one or more of C-SPAN's channels.

At the correspondence office, Cantu worked in the greetings department, which dealt with letters from citizens marking their achievements or milestones, like birthdays and anniversaries. He said the messages to President Obama ran the gamut from glowing compliments to scathing criticism and everything in between.

“We received thousands of letters each week,” he said. “The messages came in all shapes and sizes. The topics were about anything you can think of.”

In addition to processing all the mail, Cantu and the staff would select 10 letters each day that arrive at the office to send directly to the president. The letters, chosen for their timeliness or substance, would then be personally read and answered by Obama.

Cantu is considering attending law school and said experience in D.C. is something Bradley students should seriously consider. He added that the Washington program reaffirmed his interest in pursuing a career in politics or public service.

“Politics in its basic form is learning about the public,” he said. “I got a great sense of what the public wanted hearing from people who were really happy and those who were going through a lot of trouble.”