Washington D.C. ranks as one of the most popular destinations for Wheaton grads. Yet while some D.C.-dwelling alumni planned to pursue politics, others found themselves in Washington along the twists and turns of unanticipated career paths. Their work in the public sphere ranges from lobbying firms, to NGOs, to the high reaches of government agencies. Crisscrossing Washington on streets and metro lines, we met up with former Wheaties making new waves in D.C.
Jared Noetzel ‘13 never cared much for politics — a revelation that surprised me as I sat with him in downtown Washington, minutes away from both the Capitol building and the White House steps.
While a student at Wheaton, Noetzel never joined a political group, waved signs at a rally or took a political science course. In fact, he only ended up in D.C. following a chance meeting at a conference he attended with other HNGR students. Reeled in by the promise of a free T-shirt, Noetzel spoke with an ambassador for Bread for the World, a faith-based, international NGO dedicated to obliterating hunger.
Within several months, he was interning for Bread for the World in D.C. And three years later, he’s still here, working for an advocacy organization called the ONE Campaign to fight extreme poverty around the world.
Seated at a window table in a cozy coffee shop just down the street from his office — where he now works to mobilize people of faith for ONE — Noetzel explained that he communicates with pastors and church members around the country, faith-based institutions and celebrities to foster support for policy measures addressing poverty.
Yet he says that his work downtown is an incomplete picture of life in D.C. According to Noetzel, Washington D.C. contains two worlds. “The first is Washington,” he said, as we glanced out the window at the ornate buildings lining downtown. The stately locale of the White House, Congress, the World Bank, international NGOs and many other institutions, “Washington” speaks in the language of power and influence.
Meanwhile, “the district of Columbia” is a city. The city — which holds around 650,000 people — includes his own block. “The real challenge of living in D.C. and working in Washington … is remaining grounded in human experience and human reality,” Noetzel explained. “It is really easy to get caught up in the best program, the right policy, the importance of national and international issues we work on.” The plight of the couple who lives next door should matter at least as much, he said.
On his way to work that day, Noetzel passed Sen. Bernie Sanders, clad in a long green coat, walking the route from Capitol Hill. “Senator, keep up the good work!” he told Sanders. It wasn’t meant as an ideological endorsement, Noetzel explained — he actually disagrees with Sanders on many issues. He wanted to encourage the senator as a demonstration of personal respect.
Part of a Christian’s duty in Washington D.C. is to recognize the humanity of its residents. Noetzel says, “It’s still ultimately real people … who make those calls and choices.”
The right use of power is difficult for people, he said. “There’s no special or unique brokenness in politics, it’s not more sorted than business or family life. It’s just that we show all this stuff on C-SPAN, so you can see it more clearly than the deals made in a business executive’s boardroom.”
When she arrived in D.C., Jennifer Bell ‘93 was a 29-year-old speech pathologist — an outsider. Her class schedule, like Noetzel’s, never included a political science course. Her major: French.
Moving to Washington with her husband, a fellow Wheaton grad, Bell found a part-time job at a local hospital and decided to intern at Congress at the same time. That decision launched her 15-year journey through the world of public policy, which would reinvent her career, eventually leading her to co-found her own healthcare-focused lobbying firm.
As she ushered us through her home into an airy room decorated with white linen, the house seemed to stand worlds away from the buzzing streets of downtown Washington. Yet Capitol Hill is a better reflection of Bell’s mission than the quiet, wooded hill where her house sits. Bell loves the way that Washington is “concentrated” with ambitious people — go-getters gathered from around the country and the world.
Washington D.C. is a company town, Bell said — only the “company” is the federal government.
Bell’s lack of experience and “preconceived ideas” about policy making allowed her to stand out in the world of Washington, which focused on ideology. Unlike many of her colleagues developing healthcare legislation, Bell possessed a rare perspective: that of a “real person that had a real job.”
“I understand the practical implications of some of the laws we were trying to change,” she told us. That knowledge helps her to address the various needs of her clients, who include organizations like hospitals, associations of doctors and companies or CEOs.
Today, as a professional who works on behalf of clientele largely outside of the political hub, it isn’t surprising that Bell supports “outsiders” who seek to renovate Washington. It’s one reason why she supported President Trump early in the primary season when most of her colleagues did not.
“I live here and work here, but I love disruption,” she said. “I think this is a town that’s too static in its patterns.” Bell noted that her perspective reflects that of her home state, Vermont, whose suspicious and self-reliant attitude caused it to refuse to join the 13 colonies until later when it became the 14th state. “I kind of like the idea that there will be this dynamite thrown in there,” she said of the new administration.
Nevertheless, it’s “good to have a mix” of experienced politicians and newcomers, Bell added. “There’s a lot of expertise in Washington that kind of stays here.”
Learning and practicing integrity is critical in D.C., Bell said. “You can build it over time and destroy it really fast.” She stressed the need for Christians in Washington to exercise honesty and consideration. “You can have strong opinions, but do your research and take someone else’s perspective,” she said. “Try to understand what they think and build relationships.”
“There’s a story everywhere you look.” Spoken like a true reporter, the words of Sarah Pulliam Bailey ’08 ring especially true of Washington, where the actions of our highest elected officials make headlines every day.
Her journalistic appetite traces back to her time at Wheaton — which included serving as Editor-in-chief of The Record, working at WETN and interning at news publications — and growing up in a “journalism family.” Her father worked as the editor of The Indianapolis Star. Now, as a religion reporter based in New York City for The Washington Post, Bailey’s journalistic duty operates through spotting stories.
Her mind starts on story sprees regardless of time or place. Some Sunday mornings, she finds herself analyzing services for religion trends. Earlier that day, Bailey’s trip to an old-fashioned diner triggered more ideas. “I can’t turn it off!” she said.
During the election season, many of those stories were — unsurprisingly — political.
The idea behind one article she wrote this month was originally sparked during a trip with relatives weeks earlier to picturesque Mount Airy, North Carolina — also the hometown of iconic actor Andy Griffith, and inspiration for the town of Mayberry in “The Andy Griffith Show.”
The post-election conversations surrounding rural voters, Christianity and the economy converged to provide a creative new angle: examining the tensions within nostalgic small towns.
With only two days to report on the story, Bailey faced what she terms the “constant challenge” of journalism: thoroughly explaining complex issues within limited time and space. “I’m still a little conflicted about the medium that journalism works in,” she said. “I’m not in college where I can write 15 pages on this, I get 1500 words, maybe.”
Yet journalism’s challenges also invite a welcome unpredictability; each day brings a new project. Bailey describes her job as “being paid to learn” — an arrangement that perfectly suits her investigative instinct. “I like to travel … be on the ground and talking to people and seeing what their life is like and trying to bring that color to the story.”
During that process, she strives to employ the “Golden Rule.” She tries to “write about people in a way that’s not foreign and strange” — to avoid portraying other faiths “in the way that I wouldn’t want my faith to be characterized,” she said. She said she tries to “provide as much context and background that I can with the limited space that I have.”
Bailey’s faith also surfaces in her role as a sort of “translator” in the newsroom. She sometimes advises colleagues on terminology in their articles related to Christianity. She, in turn, relies on her colleagues to gauge whether her writing on Christianity translates the subculture to be accessible to a wide audience.
The work of journalists is itself an act of translation. The daily decisions in Washington would go largely unnoticed and unquestioned without the work of journalists. “We need truth-tellers, people who go to the city council meeting and tell us what happened” without being “financially tied” to the outcomes, Bailey said.
The Policy Expert
Kelsie Wendelberger ‘15, who graduated from Wheaton only two years ago, is already pounding the pavement in Washington, D.C. Young and unusually experienced for someone new to the political scene, Wendelberger works as a policy assistant with the Senate Budget Committee.
Wendelberger’s journey to Capitol Hill may have started at Wheaton, but it took her around the world, including a stint at Oxford, an internship in New York City and trips to the Middle East. Today, her current international involvements reflect those diverse experiences that led her to Washington.
Wendelberger works with refugees at a Christian relief agency, trains the United Arab Emirates government in disaster-preparedness and assists with microfinance in North Africa. If those activities weren’t enough to fill out her schedule, she served on the 2017 Inauguration committee.
It’s no surprise that catching an interview — especially during the pre-inaugural chaos — proved challenging.
As part of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, Wendelberger had a hand in planning the logistics for the highly-anticipated day, collaborating alongside other political insiders to book seating and delegate tickets to people from around the world. Her duties also included ushering international VIPs to their seats.
Amidst her flurry of activities at the Capitol, Wendelberger sees her faith as a fundamental part of her work in politics. She told us that, “Everybody knows I’m a Christian. It’s just who I am.” It’s her Christian faith — rather than her extensive political involvements — that provides her main source of meaning. “Christianity should transcend policy and politics,” she said.
According to Wendelberger, one reason for the emotionally-charged political climate is our tendency to glorify politics at the expense of showing empathy. “People get so caught up and feel personally offended if someone they didn’t support wins,” she said. “It’s the problem with identity politics. Your identity should be in Christ.”
Wendelberger thinks that although many people in Washington D.C. — whether working in through government or other institutions populating the city — chase influence, “people in D.C. are really searching for something beyond power.”
Faith allows us to reach across the political aisle, as Wendelberger has experienced in her interactions with friends who disagree politically. At the Senate, she meets with a group of people of various political ideologies for a lunch and bible study. “When you have that connection with people,” said Wendelberger, “it makes relationships stronger.”