Engaged Citizenship: Contributing to Community

Interview with Admiral Stephen W. Rochon

Cyrus Kamkar

Washington DC has already had a significant impact on me. We spent Sunday exploring memorials and museums. I saw the WWII Memorial, Korean War Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, and the Washington Monument. Looking at these national monuments was a great way to start the trip and to get a good view of the uniqueness and importance of DC.

We started Monday with our first interview of the trip. Meeting Admiral Stephen Rochon, former Chief Usher of the White House, was a great experience and made me even more excited for what is yet to come. Admiral Rochon has dedicated his life to service, and in my opinion, people like that are the most interesting. Rochon makes a strong point of keeping politics out of the realm of service because he says it would only be a distraction to producing good results, which seems like a rare opinion today.

The end of the interview was the most interesting. Rochon told us that this morning while he was picking out his outfit, he was trying to figure out what pin to wear on his coat. “I decided since I’m going to be with young students that I would wear the American flag.” He sees the impact of engaged, patriotic citizens, and the importance of young people being engaged. He said, “I’ve traveled everywhere, and I can tell you that we live in the best country. It’s great to travel to other places just to see how great America is.” Rochon’s emphasis on remembering the sacrifices people have made for our country made me very glad. It is not something often thought about in our country, especially amongst younger people. I appreciate him seeing the significance of patriotic generations.

Rochon also gave us great advice about what values we should hold in order to become successful. He told us to believe in ourselves, and that “God gave you the tools to succeed.” He also said to surround ourselves with positive, and supportive people, and to have a good attitude in life. He said that to be the best, you have to work hard and sacrifice, and that in the end the reward is priceless.

I will always remember today’s interview with Admiral Rochon and how his advice and shared perspective made me believe that my goals are attainable, especially through living a life of service.


Kaili Sullens

Admiral Rochon had a very strong essence of peacefulness about him. When he entered the room, he took the time to shake each of our hands, and his smile instantly put us all at ease. The first thing that struck me was his statement, “I’m retired from making money.” It takes a very special person to go beyond expectations after they no longer are obligated to work and still dedicate themselves to the community around them, which is exactly what this man is doing. Though retired from his position of Director of the Executive Residence and Chief Usher, Admiral Rochon is still traveling to give speeches, he is writing a book, and he is actively participating in his community.

He is also dedicated to relationships in his life, in particular his mother. When Admiral Rochon talked about his mom, there was a certain sparkle in his eye that can only be seen when someone talks about the most important person in their life. Don’t get him started on how amazing his mother can cook because he will surely describe her brilliant New Orleans dishes, in particular her gumbo. He said, “My mother could turn hamburger meat into a Filet Mignon.” Rochon now has the full time responsibility of taking care of his 94-year-old mom, but points out that if she took care of him for 18 years, why wouldn’t he care for her now? It was things like this that instantly drew me to him, and truly gave me a deep respect for the kind of man he is.

He ended the interview with key ideas of advice that he thought would be beneficial to us, and I have to say they really were. He highlighted that you should have pride in everything you do, something I hope to strive toward and implement in my daily activities. Honesty, integrity, passion, persistence, and belief in yourself were very important points he mentioned, ones that I definitely took to heart. Admiral Rochon insisted you should have high expectations for yourself, and do what you love to do to the fullest. This inspired me heavily being a junior, and not fully knowing what I want to do with my life yet. When he posed the question, “What do you love to do?” I realized it’s not about finding a career that’s “safe” or one that you’ll know you’ll make money in, but rather doing what you love, knowing that if you fully commit, you will succeed in what you do.


Zac Clark

All the stress of preparing for our first interview went away as Admiral Rochon entered the room, greeting us all with a firm handshake, a look in the eyes, and a “Good morning!” “How do you do!” or a simple “Hi!” His greetings brought smiles to all of our faces. As Ward initiated small talk with Rochon, we all relaxed in our seats, knowing the interview to come would not be as stressful as we thought. As he answered our questions, speaking eloquently and from the heart, we all listened closely. Almost every sentence was a new bit of advice that we could apply almost anywhere, but particularly in our leadership roles, which are very prominent aspects of the Mount Madonna academic and social lifestyle.

When he spoke about his mother, you could see a light come to him. You could easily tell that he cared so much about this amazing woman who influenced his life so much. When he spoke about his many different careers, you could sense his immense dedication to the places and people he has worked for. The relationships he has formed are ever-present in his mind. He shared with us a list of 18 bits of wisdom that he is going to share at a commencement speech next week. I wrote them down and will continue to review them throughout my life. They all related to how we should be genuine and conduct ourselves in a way that makes us approachable.


Priyanka Bharghavan

Today was our first day of interviews in DC. For our first interview we had the privilege of speaking with Admiral Rochon. Admiral Rochon is an extremely qualified individual, who has had valuable experience as a member of the coast guard, Admiral of the coast guard, and Chief Executive Usher at the White house. Even now, in retirement, he is a dedicated public servant, a caregiver to his mother, and a passionate speaker.

From the moment Admiral Rochon entered the room, he was very personable and amicable. He shook everyone’s hand, and it was clear by his sheer sincerity that he was truly happy to be there and share his wisdom. The first thing he talked about was a party he was throwing at his home in Louisiana for his alma mater, and that he was going to give the commencement speech at his old high school. He established a personal relationship with us through his casual diction. He told us that he does not accept pay for any of his speeches and that he worked just for the love of doing so. This passion struck me as extraordinary, something that very few people get to experience in their work.

Another aspect of this interview that struck me was his giving, compassionate nature, especially regarding his mother. This interview was timed perfectly given that yesterday was Mother’s Day; he mentioned his mother’s impact in almost every question asked. He spoke of how she tirelessly cared for him and his two brothers so that they wanted for nothing. “I grew up rich, but poor, because my mother made us think that we were rich.” He spoke of how even at the age of 94, his mother is the sharpest dressed person in the room and makes gourmet meals out of hamburger meat.

Admiral Rochon also has great respect for hardworking people and work well done. He talked about his book that illuminates the work of the Pea Island Rescue Crew, specifically the work of the African American crew members who went unrewarded for their life-saving efforts, and how he worked with the current leader of the Coast Guard to recognize these men.

This was definitely the best way to kick off the DC trip. This interview was so interesting and impactful, and makes me even more excited to meet all the other officials in the next ten days.



Interview with Sean O’Keefe

Anika Compoginis
Sean O’Keefe

Today was our first day of interviews. Some of us arrived in DC Saturday, and the rest yesterday, Sunday. Yesterday, the group that was already here went on a sightseeing trip to the national mall, and I got the chance to go to two of the Smithsonian museums, which was a very exciting experience. I had my first experience with subway music while on the way to the mall, and it really brought a smile to my face to hear and see the three people who were singing because they loved to do it. Yesterday afternoon to early this morning, I have been editing and polishing interviews with Ward, and we’re already swamped with new ones to work on.

Early this morning we interviewed Admiral Rochon, who was Chief Usher for the second President Bush and President Obama. Early this afternoon, we interviewed Sean O’Keefe, who has held a multitude of high-level management positions in different companies and organizations. O’Keefe is sometimes known as the Fixer in the business and political world. Some of the more well-known positions that O’Keefe has held are administrator to NASA, Secretary of the Navy, member the Appropriations committee, and budget analyst for the Department of Defense.

This is the first time that MMS has interviewed O’Keefe, so no one really knew what to expect, or how he might respond to our questions. When we walked into the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the first thing I noticed was the light-sculpture that hung from the ceiling, and how fancy everything was. The room we used was just about as nice as the one where we interviewed George Shultz at Stanford University. Before O’Keefe arrived, I was nervous, but that apprehension went right out of the window as soon as he walked in. He walked into the room with a smile, chuckling about something to Ward.

Once we started to get into the questions, it was very evident that he knew what he was talking about, and gave each question equal consideration before giving a thoughtful answer. I found that he didn’t really care about the money aspect of all the jobs he has held, but more the public service aspect. I asked him a question about what it had been like growing up moving around because his father was in the military, like my mother’s father. I was expecting him to respond that it had made for a rough childhood, and that he had wanted more stability growing up. The answer I got surprised me. He told me that he had loved moving around every two years, and that it had made his job situation more familiar. He has spent his career moving from company to company when they needed help, identifying the problem, and pulling in the right people to make the issue right itself.

All in all, I think that he is a very charming man who has taken it upon himself to do as much good as he can, in whatever ways he can.


Gracie Howley

Today was our second day in DC and our first day of interviews. Our second interview today was with Sean O’Keefe who has held many titles, many titles that he said he acquired because he was at the right place at the right time but was otherwise was not the top candidate for. He is a university professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School, former chairman of Airbus Group, Inc., former Secretary of the Navy, former Administrator of NASA, former chancellor of Louisiana State University, and former member of the board of directors of DuPont. We landed the O’Keefe interview because it just so happened that my uncle Bill has been his friend for over 25 years. Months ago, we started researching and getting excited about the range and caliber of titles he has held and is holding. Since MMS had not previously interviewed O’Keefe even Ward did not know what to expect, but he knew how to prep, so that’s what we did.

This afternoon we walked a little less than a mile to get to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a beautiful marble and dark wood interior building. The staff was very kind and approachable, and I felt like smiling when around them. We got the room all set up, and then had to do the so-called DC classic, “hurry up and wait.” Since Mr. O’Keefe is friends with my uncle, naturally, I was chosen to greet and introduce him to the class. I waited outside the conference room keeping my eyes on the stairs in front of me and the elevators behind me. I had an impression to make, and I wasn’t about to make it by having my back turned to him when he arrived. I felt like a secretary or personal assistant in my clean, put-together outfit, holding my quickly-filling notebook. I could see myself in one of these buildings one day if that path presents itself to me. He arrived right on time and our greeting went smoothly.

One of the key themes I picked up on from him was the power of the collective. He spoke about how the atmosphere of citizenship in our nation greatly shifted after 9/11. Before the attack, citizenship was very much about the collective and individual liberties were important but were sidelined compared to the value of the whole. Now everyday in the news the main argument is for protecting and enforcing our individual rights and identities. Not to say that our diversity and individuality is not important, however, the responsibility of being a citizen has been left out of the debate. People complain about the final candidates to the presidency, yet less than half of the eligible American population chose not to exercise their right to vote. It was our irresponsibility that created our election. Saying you were busy on election day will give you a lot of time, four to eight years to be exact, to think about how busy you really were.

He admired NASA’s method of approaching a problem from many different angles in order to present multiple favorable paths. He said we are smarter than the smartest person in the room, meaning the collective knowledge of everyone overpowers any one human brain.
He has had many jobs he acquired because the opportunity presented itself to him. He says he is probably the luckiest man we’ll ever meet because he has not, on paper, been qualified for most of the positions he has held: “Don’t turn down opportunities you haven’t been offered yet.”

Overall, leadership and adaptability seemed to emanate from him and weave their way into many or all of his questions. This interview stimulated a more professional part of my brain, and I feel better prepared and excited for the rest of this trip.


Imogen Cockrum

Today at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) we interviewed Sean O’Keefe . When we reached the building, we were immediately astounded by the architecture and beauty of it. Stepping inside, it was just as wondrous. It made those of us preparing to ask Sean O’Keefe questions just a bit more nervous because of how surreal the professional setting was. We stepped inside the interview room and waited. When he walked in, he immediately had a smile on his face and the boys were in awe of his well-kept mustache. Sean O’Keefe was very detailed in his answers and gave excellent backgrounds and stories to extend and justify them. He was very passionate about his career, and it made us excited to hear about the positions he has held and his perspective and advice. The closer the time came to asking my question, the more nervous and excited I became. When I asked my question, I noticed he was very attentive to not only what I said, but to me as well. He was very honest in his answer and kept eye contact with me, while also talking to the whole group. Sean O’Keefe was humble, kind, and humorous. The interview ended, and he seemed to be impressed with our group. We left satisfied and relieved at how well the interview went. Sean O’Keefe was a great interviewee, and I hope that future MMS groups have the opportunity to interview him as well.


Sienna Clifton

Today we interviewed Sean O’Keefe. He had a calm and gentle presence. His voice was quiet, so you felt like you wanted to lean in, hanging on every word. His presence set the tone for the whole interview.

At the end of the interview he said, “We all have an equal right to vote; therefore, we all have equal opportunity and equal responsibility.”  This really resonated with me because it is a simple way to address what it means to be an engaged citizen. He stated multiple times the importance of voting, every time no matter how little you think it will count. It made me realize that now that I am 18 how important it is to educate myself, so that I can exercise the right that has been given to me. Hearing from someone who has done so much with his life talk about the simple things I can do to contribute to the world truly inspired me.

Another thing that struck me was at the beginning of the interview he talked about not saying no to an opportunity before you know what it is or because of a preconceived notion about something. This stood out to me because I am normally nervous about change or jumping into something that I am unsure about. It was comforting to hear about the success that can come from being open to unexpected opportunities. Overall this interview was a great start to our DC trip, and I am so honored that we had the opportunity to speak to Sean O’Keefe.

  • Tiffany Wayne

    Looking good, group! And great post-interview insights. I especially appreciate how you all made connections between the personal qualities exhibited by the interviewees and their professional choices and paths.

  • Derby D’s

    Good take-aways, everyone. I wholeheartedly agree with O’Keefe’s about keeping pre-conceived notions in check when making decisions about opportunities. Every experience you have helps you make better choices in the future and can take you to places you never imagined.