Vincent D'Agostino had his eye on the White House Internship Program long before he landed it last fall. The Homosassa native learned of the program several years ago, but the timing wasn't right. He had more important things to focus on, such as giving back to the world. "There was a bigger part of me that just wanted to help others, listen to their problems and help navigate them toward solutions." Two years after earning his bachelor's degree in psychology from Flagler College, D'Agostino joined the Peace Corps and headed to Swaziland, Africa, devoting two years to creating HIV/AIDS support groups and teaching English. Upon returning to the United States, he secured a job with Suncoast Hospice, and later began attending Stetson University College of Law part time. He graduated in 2012. Determined to apply to the internship program one last time, D'Agostino thought his experiences in law school, coupled with his passion for people with HIV/AIDS, might give him the edge he needed. He was right and was invited to the program in September. D'Agostino, who lives in Seminole Heights with his partner and their pet cockapoo, recently spoke with Times staff writer Aimée Alexander about his journey to becoming a White House intern and what's on the horizon.
At age 33 you decided to apply for a White House internship. What brought you to that decision?
I actually learned of the internship about eight years ago and had applied several times before, but I wanted to wait until I was in law school. I was 27 when I began the part-time program at Stetson College of Law and I felt the timing would be better, so I applied one last time.
Were there a lot of interns your age?
Some were my age or older. Most were college age, early 20s, some were in high school, some were postgraduate students.
What drew you to the program?
I have always been drawn to public service and thought this internship would allow me to continue my passion for that on a much larger scale.
How did you find out you had been accepted?
I was out to lunch one afternoon at the Oxford Exchange when I got a phone call from what appeared to be a private number. It was a very exciting moment for me, but I only had two weeks to prepare for the three-month internship. I had to resign from my job of 6 1/2 years at Suncoast Hospice to accept the internship, search for a place to live in D.C., and purchase several suits.
What did you do while at Suncoast Hospice?
I worked for AIDS Services Association of Pinellas Inc. as a case manager. It's a program under Suncoast Hospice that offers services to those infected and affected by HIV in Pinellas County. I case-managed about 75 clients. I listened to them, helped them find resources.
What did you hope to accomplish with your internship?
I was hoping to learn more about HIV/AIDS policy work on a national level. I was able to work on HIV/AIDS while in the Peace Corps in Swaziland. I was able to serve my community here in Tampa Bay by sitting in on the West Central Florida Ryan White Care Council as a voting member.
Can you elaborate on why you wanted to go into the Peace Corps?
I am not sure when the idea first crept into my brain … I want to say in high school. But definitely in college, after cruising around the world with Semester at Sea and landing in South Africa, because 9/11 rerouted us. We were supposed to go through the Suez Canal to visit Egypt but because of fear of terrorism, Semester at Sea officials decided to take us around the Cape of Good Hope and, before doing so, we stopped in Capetown, South Africa. I fell in the love with the land and the people and promised myself I would return. The easiest way to do that was through Peace Corps. I was excited about merging my passion for helping others and with my newfound love for sub-Saharan Africa.
What did you do as an intern?
I did some administrative work, as to be expected with any type of job. I fact-checked, drafted talking points, researched policy issues and drafted memos for my supervisor and director. I was able to attend meetings with CEOs, government officials and in-house team members.
You spent a lot of time helping draft policies during your internship. If you could draft your own policy, what would that look like?
Well, one thing I have seen during my time working with HIV/AIDS patients is a lack of housing. It saddens and frustrates me to see so many people in need of housing. You can tell patients to take their meds, but if they don't have a roof over their heads, it's tough to make sure they receive the help they need. I think some people don't think about those needs and don't worry about that aspect.
You mentioned that your supervisor invited you to the program because of your work with HIV/AIDS and you went on to work in the Office of National AIDS Policy. How did it feel to be selected based on your experience?
It felt great to know that after years of hard work in Africa and in the Tampa Bay area that I could bring my experiences to the table on a national scale. It was refreshing to know I wasn't picked because of my age, my school or because of someone I knew. My work spoke for itself, and I will always be grateful and appreciative of that.
Did you have any interaction with President Obama?
Yes. It was brief. I was one of 11 interns out of 145 selected to meet with President Obama because I co-led a Legal Professional Interest Group for the interns. I shook his hand, told him my name, where I was from and what school I attended.
During your time as an intern, the government shut down for two weeks. What was that like?
It was very exciting to be in the midst of something historic. Interns received an email saying we couldn't come to the White House because of the shutdown.
Now that you have experienced the internship and have passed the Florida Bar exam, what are your future plans?
Well, right now I am unemployed. I took the bar exam in February and passed, so I am just waiting for my license to come in the mail. I have been actively seeking employment since January. I am looking for a federal clerkship, state clerkship or an entry-level position with a firm in Tampa Bay. I am open to returning to D.C. It's a great place.
What advice would you share about being an intern?
My advice is to put in the hard work, meet as many people as you can, and do not shy away from asking someone, anyone, to meet up for coffee — unless maybe it's the president.
Weekend Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.