When Eastern Mennonite University sophomore Londen Wheeler learned President Obama would drop by his workplace for a thank-you visit, he knew Nov. 27 would not be a typical day at the office.
Then again, Wheeler was not enrolled in a typical college semester. He was under EMU’s Washington Community Scholars’ Center (WCSC), a domestic cross-cultural learning experience that includes internships in D.C. Majoring in digital media, Wheeler got to be a communications intern at the Capital Area Food Bank.
After 12 short weeks on the job covering events such as the Northern Virginia Hunger Summit and conducting photojournalism interviews with families who experience hunger, Wheeler’s creative work and dependability had earned the respect of his supervisor. When it was time to tap an “official photographer” to take the prized group photo of food bank staff workers with our nation’s president, Wheeler’s boss entrusted the 19-year-old with the assignment.
Late afternoon on Thanksgiving eve, with flashing lights along a secure corridor, the presidential motorcade made the 10-minute journey from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to the Food Bank’s cavernous distribution center in the northeast section of the city. Obama and his wife Michelle greeted the assembled food bank workers, thanking them for their efforts to alleviate hunger in the nation’s capital.
That’s when Wheeler’s big moment arrived. All eyes turned to the stepladder where he was perched. “Everybody say ‘food bank’ on three,” he directed the group. With his camera set on burst mode, he captured a cluster of images and checked them in his viewfinder. Obama quizzed the youthful photographer, “Did you get it? Is it good?”
“Yes, sir, I got it,” Wheeler replied. Later he admitted, “I was in awe just being in the same room exchanging small talk with the president of the United States.”
Wheeler was soon ushered into another room to join the official press pool. The first family entered, complete with daughters Sasha and Malia, and took their positions behind a long table laden with food. “I was shooting over the shoulder of Pete Souza, the White House photographer, and jostling for position with Associated Press photographers,” Wheeler said. “We were all trying to grab expressive photos of the first family. They were relaxed, smiling and chatting with the line of children and elderly folks as they handed out Thanksgiving food packages.”
After 10 minutes and more than 200 clicks of his shutter, Wheeler’s dream assignment ended. He had passed the test. “I would have loved having more time to talk with the other photographers in the press pool, to learn how they got into this line of work, to ask them for some career advice.”
Opening doors and expanding horizons are the goals of WCSC, the only program of its kind among Anabaptist universities in the United States. This fall, 10 students from EMU and four from Bluffton (Ohio) University were paired with an organization as interns in a career field of their choice. WCSC students also complete undergraduate coursework while living in a home owned by EMU, the Nelson Good House (named for WCSC’s founder).
Each Tuesday evening WCSC students take a class entitled “Servant Leadership in an Urban Setting,” led by associate director Sheldon Good. Through journal assignments and group discussions, they wrestle with questions of vocational calling. In courses oriented toward social issues, WCSC director Kimberly Schmidt, PhD, introduces students to the city’s diverse neighborhoods and encourages them to experience the energy, sights, flavors and sounds of urban life first-hand.
“At the neighborhood level, D.C. is still a friendly southern city,” commented Good. “Neighbors gather on front porches on warm evenings. It’s easy to strike up conversations.” For most students, the WCSC semester is their first exposure to urban living, and many are surprised how much they enjoy the city.
As an African-American student from a rural community on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Wheeler noted it felt exhilarating to get “in touch with the rich diversity of my black heritage, just to live in a neighborhood where I am one of the majority rather than in the minority.”
Next semester when he returns to EMU after his Washington sojourn, Wheeler plans to be more involved in the Black Student Union and participate in the Gospel Choir, plus compete on the track team as a sprinter and middle distance runner. Last summer he was a freelance photographer for the weekly newspaper serving his hometown of Faber, the Nelson County Times. He plans to add photography to his major track of study, with the goal of someday working for a large newspaper.
On Thanksgiving Day, after his big day photographing the president, Wheeler loaded his car for the three-hour drive to his home, 25 miles southwest of Charlottesville, Va. His trusty Canon camera held the 200 freshly captured presidential images of his astonishing photo shoot. He had quite a story to share with his family gathered around the Thanksgiving table.
“My parents have a different perspective on this opportunity,” Wheeler said. “They remind me to never settle, to prepare myself for the next step, to make something like this happen every day.”