Altering Expectations: My Internship at the Pentagon

By Caroline Rutten 

A woman in a blazer and red blouse smiles at the camera. A wooden fence appears to be the backdrop.

Caroline Rutten, intern for the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)

I entered my internship at the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs) with no military background, no military experience. Despite growing up in close proximity to Camp Pendleton in San Diego, California, the military was simply a background aspect of my upbringing.

Fast-forward to the present. I’m a senior sociology student at the University of California, Davis. I’m a research assistant, a writer for the newspaper and sorority sister. I’ve studied and taught English in Ghana, and I’ve traveled to the West Bank to gain firsthand knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Yet, in spite of my wide-ranging experiences, I did not know the difference between a lieutenant colonel and a colonel.

I severely lacked a basic understanding of the largest and most lethal military in the world – not my most shining confession.

Caroline Rutten poses on top of the National Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Koekelberg, Belgium. Photo courtesy of Caroline Rutten

When I was offered an internship at the Pentagon, I accepted it hesitantly. I ultimately decided to use this opportunity as a method to understand the interworking details of how this bureaucracy functions. I was granted a rare chance to be a civilian working in the military’s epicenter, a rare chance that I should not dismiss. However, I was nervous how I would acclimate to a culture so far removed from my own. Would I be able to keep up? Would I be accepted as a member of the team?

Rest assured, I have finally learned the military rankings during my time here. I now use military time in my everyday vernacular (I still do subtract 12 in my head each time, I must qualify) and I use the military alphabet when spelling out a word. And, in retrospect, I did fulfill the fact-finding quest that I reduced my expectations for my internship to be. As I attended senior meetings and worked on my own communication plans, I interacted with various divisions and personnel within the military. I learned the different roles that each one contributes to the overall Department of Defense mission.

However, more significantly, my initial fear became the most impactful aspect of my internship: exposing myself to an unfamiliar environment.

OSD/PA intern Carolina Rutten records audio for a radio segment during her time at the public affairs office. Photo courtesy of Caroline Rutten.

What emerged from my initial discomfort was personal growth. I found myself more motivated to learn, to stay curious and to take on projects and tasks that would deepen my knowledge of the military. In turn, I was met with a public affairs team that acknowledged my hard work and willingness to learn, as well as pushed me to greater success. I have witnessed their sincere dedication to their work on a daily basis, and they have each served as a constant inspiration in how I can be a stronger communicator and thinker.

I also discovered my keen interest in a public affairs career. Its fast pace, strategic and creative characteristics make each day different from the previous. Because I placed myself into unaccustomed territory, I discovered a potential profession that might have remained overlooked. Through my internship, not only did I peek into the complexity of the system, but I was reminded that benefits emerge through vulnerability.

I am now leaving my summer internship with both a potential new career path and a greater understanding of how a portion of my government functions. I’ve since disregarded my initial hesitations, pleased that they passed. As a civilian, I now feel a personal connection with my military that I would have not felt without this experience.

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Altering Expectations: My Internship at the Pentagon