Three months into his co-​​op with the Office of the First Lady Michelle Obama last fall, Klevis Xharda stood in a recep­tion hall filled with dozens of past recip­i­ents of the Pres­i­den­tial Medal of Freedom. Here were base­ball legend Hank Aaron, feminist-​​activist Gloria Steinem, micro­fi­nance pio­neer Muhammed Yunus, Pres­i­dent Bill Clinton, mem­bers of the Kennedy family—to Xharda, SSH’14, “some of the greatest and most rev­o­lu­tionary fig­ures in modern history.”

As Pres­i­dent Barack Obama paid tribute to two 50-​​year anniversaries—of both the medal and the death of its founder, Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy—Xharda, assigned to staff the event, was struck by the guests’ warmth and humility. “If I’ve learned one thing from this intern­ship,” he says now, “it’s that the people who seem untouch­able on TV are so human”—gracious, humble, normal—“when you’re in the same room with them.

There is some­thing com­forting in this realization.”

As one of roughly 6,000 appli­cants for more than 100 spots, Xharda had scores of occa­sions to interact with White House guests and senior staff as one of three stu­dent interns reporting to Social Sec­re­tary of the United States Jeremy Bernard. “If these deeply human men and women can accom­plish great things,” Xharda says, “there’s a chance for the rest of us to make a difference.”

It was a heady expe­ri­ence for this native Albanian, who as a tod­dler ran bare­foot through crum­bling city blocks before fleeing the country for the U.S. with his family in 1998. For 16 weeks between Sep­tember and December, Xharda, a fourth-​​year polit­ical sci­ence and inter­na­tional affairs com­bined major, coor­di­nated events hosted by the pres­i­dent and first lady, from the Kennedy Center Honors to a sym­po­sium at which A-​​list actors taught film­making basics to public high school students.

Often working past mid­night, Xharda says he rel­ished his respon­si­bil­i­ties and the cama­raderie among his col­leagues. Among many “unfor­get­table” oppor­tu­ni­ties were reg­ular brown-​​bag lunches with senior staff and a Q-​​and-​​A with Michelle Obama on her child­hood obe­sity ini­tia­tive, among other topics. And, oh—a hand­shake from the pres­i­dent himself.

We were assigned tasks to exe­cute as we saw fit, but we had plenty of sup­port,” says Xharda. “We were empow­ered to do our jobs, moti­vated by others’ con­fi­dence and trust.”

Xharda’s biggest assign­ment: To iden­tify and schedule musical per­for­mances by groups across the country for the First Family and guests at 18 hol­iday recep­tions. While some, like The Gay Men’s Chorus, were well known, most were “ordi­nary people,” col­lege stu­dents, chil­dren, and senior cit­i­zens. Among them were the Nor’easters, Northeastern’s award-​​winning a cap­pella group.

Xharda is grateful for sup­port he received from the John Elfers Memo­rial Schol­ar­ship Fund and for gifts from par­ents and alumni who are making more unpaid co-​​ops like his pos­sible. “You develop a level of humility and ded­i­ca­tion through public ser­vice,” he says. On the heels of his expe­ri­ence, he notes, “I’m also a lot more ambi­tious now.”

All my life I’ve been inter­ested in for­eign policy and secu­rity, but the White House made me think: ‘O.K. Now, how can I top this?’”

I’m inter­ested in gov­ern­ment, but I’m also inter­ested in inno­vating,” he says. “I realize I have options, and I want to explore them before aiming for grad school.”