Peter Velz does not look at the road ahead. Instead, he focuses on the freedom found in the adrenaline and exertion of long-distance running. He centers his thoughts, works out problems, and quells his stress. And he is no stranger to pressure situations. 

The 2020 Outstanding Recent Undergraduate Alumnus of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences went from Virginia Tech to the White House and is now back in an academic environment. Running has been his not-so-secret weapon through it all.

“Everyone in the White House was so active,” he said. “The chief of staff was a big runner, as were many high-level people, and as a junior staffer, I could talk to them with a shared passion in a way I couldn’t have if I didn’t run.”

But Velz’s interest in running came from poetry, specifically a poetry class taught by Thomas Gardner, an Alumni Distinguished Professor in the Department of English.

“Dr. Gardner would talk about poetry and say a part of the poem was like when you’re running with a friend and you’ve run eight or nine miles. Then your friend points to a hill and says, ‘Let’s sprint up that hill.’”

Gardner would often talk about running, and Velz became intrigued. Here was this professor, decades older, doing something completely outside of Velz’s comfort zone. So, Velz tried running and discovered he enjoyed it.

Velz in running gear
Velz completed his first marathon in January 2012, three days before starting a White House internship. He emailed Thomas Gardner, the professor who had inspired him, right after, and said, “I just ran a marathon because of your class where you always talked about running!” Photo courtesy of Peter Velz.

But that’s not all Gardner’s class gave him. 

“He would read texts so carefully,” Velz said. “We’d spend the entire class on five lines and really dig into every word. My capacity to read deeply into a text and truly appreciate it changed.”

That ability translated into editorial skills. He worked at the Virginia Tech Writing Center and as a managing editor and then an editor-in-chief at the Collegiate Times.

It was during his time at the newspaper that he learned the White House was accepting internship applications. His first attempt did not work, but he was granted an interview the next semester when his application automatically carried over.

Velz moved on with his life. He graduated with a degree in English in 2011 and then undertook an internship with the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Virginia. Soon after, he traveled to Thailand to visit family. It was there he received an email from the White House internship program, asking whether he could do an immediate phone interview. It took 12 minutes. They asked him to start in two weeks. 

Velz and PREsident Obama greet the press in the Oval Office.
At the Oval Office in 2015, Velz diplomatically tries to end a presidential press conference in a timely manner. President Obama, in a jovial mood, instead enjoyed engaging with a member of the media. Photo by Jacquelyn Martin for the Associated Press.

He interned in the communications department working for spokespeople who handled regional media, including the Virginia papers that announced when then first lady Michelle Obama would give her commencement speech at Virginia Tech. The spokesman who handled that story recommended Velz join the advance team to plan the trip, an opportunity interns rarely had.

Velz became recognized for such work as an intern, and he joined the official White House staff as a media monitor. He disseminated news articles into a digest so key staffers could consume the information quickly. That work led to other positions during the next five years, including press assistant. 

He reported to the press secretary and anytime the president was on camera, Velz was the liaison between the staff and the press covering the appearance. He was in awe when he realized the president knew him by name, and he found himself interacting with the president regularly, including during travel with the media on 50 different trips to 20 countries and 30 states on Air Force One.

“It was the coolest job I’ll ever have,” he said. “To fly around the world with the president, such as to Cuba on historic trips — I don’t know if I completely internalized it at the time and I don’t think I will for years to come — but it felt like I was living history as it was being written. And history classes will talk about those events for the next 100 years, and I was there.”

When the Obama administration left the White House, Velz took his time to find his next work adventure. He now lives in Brooklyn, New York.

And soon he found himself back in an academic setting. When the State University of New York system hired a new chancellor to oversee its 64 campuses, Velz was recommended to handle logistics and strategic communications. He soon found himself with a new title — assistant vice chancellor for external affairs. For the past two-and-a-half years he has arranged the chancellor’s visits and meetings to each campus. He also serves as liaison with the governor’s office, handling projects between the university system and that office, such as for a student volunteer program in Puerto Rico in response to the 2017 hurricanes. 

Alice Kinder, a senior instructor in the Virginia Tech Department of English, was so impressed with Velz’s successes after graduation that she nominated him for the Outstanding Recent Undergraduate Alumnus award. Those successes, she said, did not surprise her.

“Peter was one of those students every teacher hopes for: intellectually curious, self-motivated, disciplined, dedicated — a young man of integrity and compassion,” she said. “In three decades of teaching, Peter is one of the best writers I’ve ever worked with, and he has a natural grace in handling language. I expected great things from Peter. He has not disappointed.”

She said when she last spoke to Velz, while he was self-quarantined in Brooklyn, in his spare time he had taught himself to crochet and was working his way through the collected work of Raymond Carver.

Alumni who receive the Outstanding Recent Alumni Awards of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences graduated from Virginia Tech within the previous 10 years and have shown extraordinary service in their careers or to their communities. This year, for the first time, the college is honoring two alumni, one who earned an undergraduate degree in the college and one who earned a graduate degree. Velz joins Scott Jefferies, the Outstanding Recent Graduate Alumnus, in being honored by the college.

Velz, who describes himself as someone who prefers to fly by the seat of his pants, credits his time at Virginia Tech with helping him be open to new opportunities.

“The time I spent at Virginia Tech was so important because it gave me flexibility to pursue my own interests and discover my passions,” he said. “Being able to define my own liberal education was key to discovering things about myself and what I wanted to do. My experience was very choose your own adventure, and that’s what I liked about it. The degree is never the only goal; it’s the full experience that lets you do it all.”

Written by Leslie King

President Obama poses with the Velz family
President Obama posed for a photo with Velz’s family. Orawin, Velz’s mother, stands on the far left. Peter Velz stands between her and President Obama, while his sister, Aria Velz, stands on the other side of the president with Velz’s father, Peter. Photo by Lawrence Jackson for the White House.