magazine-category: Alumni

From SGA President, to Counterterrorism Analyst, to White House Briefer

Patrick Woody

Distinguished alumnus Patrick Woody, ’03, has always had a distinct fascination with history and politics. Election season was like the Super Bowl for him. His mother took him with her to the voting booth every year on Election Day, instilling in him a sense of civic responsibility. Early in high school, Woody decided that he wanted to pursue an education in law studies.

However, the decision to begin his education at Gardner-Webb University did not come about in a traditional fashion. “I like to say Gardner-Webb came into the picture by divine accident,” Woody said.

During a Christian college fair exhibit at his high school, Woody met a Gardner- Webb admissions counselor. Initially reluctant to apply for a spot at GWU, Woody was eventually convinced to give it a shot, and to submit his application for the University Fellows scholarship as well. Unbeknownst to Woody, the admissions counselor was in regular contact with his mother over the next several weeks to discuss how her son would be a great fit at Gardner-Webb University.

Woody won a scholarship, but still not entirely convinced, he decided to go for one more tour of GWU, at his mother’s encouragement. Sitting in on a Constitutional Law class with the former long-time professor and chair of the Social Sciences Department, Dr. Barry Hambright, Woody was the only person who could answer a particular question about a Supreme Court case. Woody remembers that Hambright said something along the lines of, “A senior in high school just answered this question. None of you did. Maybe you need to be taking notes from him.” This moment left an indelible mark on Woody, and later in the day, he realized that Gardner-Webb was the place for him.

“Looking back on that now, 20 years removed from Gardner-Webb, I’m like, ‘Yeah, I would’ve hated going anywhere else,’” Woody said. “I had incredible friendships that came out of my time at Gardner-Webb. I learned the importance of service. I knew it coming into Gardner- Webb, but it deepened in me, that I was going to work toward something that contributed more to others than just myself.”

He worked as a student tour guide and admissions associate, and was elected SGA President. As a student in the social sciences department, Woody was exposed to a diverse array of political opinions. The instructors allowed and even encouraged debate and the exchange of opposing ideas. “It is easier for us to meet each other in the gray, than stand so solidly in the black and white and never ever try to learn what the other person is thinking, and what drives them and what leads them and motivates them,” Woody said.

Additionally, Woody co-hosted a political TV show which was recorded on campus and aired on local cable that allowed for a free space of expressing opinions. Called “Politics in Black and White,” students and faculty members with viewpoints from all sides of the political spectrum made appearances on the show, which sparked engaging conversations and dialogue.

A primary life lesson that Woody takes from his time at Gardner-Webb is to, “Serve the greater good.” Also citing the importance of maintaining a sense of humility, Woody said, “Let your work speak for itself… and that’s what happened with my career. People recognized the work I did. And it gave me opportunities and opened doors that I never would have believed I would have been able to walk through.”

After graduating from GWU with a BA in History and Political Science, Woody spent some time working with a tech nonprofit and civic education nonprofit. He was recommended through a mutual connection to apply for a position with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and soon accepted an analyst role. After some time with DHS, he transferred to the National Counterterrorism Center as part of a team that covered online and internet-based terrorism. One particular assessment he wrote caught the attention of The White House, which resulted in a six-month project working under the Obama Administration.

Patrick Woody in the Oval Office with President Obama
President Barack Obama and staff listen as Patrick Woody, at right, offers briefing/photo courtesy Pete Souza

An opportunity for Woody within the CIA soon arose, in which he continued to focus on internet-based terrorism. The Director of National Intelligence requested a brief from Woody on the dark web, and concluded that President Barack Obama needed to hear this information directly from the source. Woody was tasked with editing an hour-long brief into an eight-minute piece to be delivered to Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and the National Security Council in the Oval Office. This experience opened up a wide range of other duties for Woody to carry out. In the ensuing months and years, he was frequently traveling across the country and overseas to brief government officials on numerous issues. “Because I was briefing so much, it became like second-nature to me,” Woody said.

Through these networks, Woody became the interim briefer for the Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly with the Trump Administration. When this temporary engagement was fulfilled, Kelly told Woody to circle back around to apply to become his permanent briefer if the position was available in the future. Kelly was soon named White House Chief of Staff, and Woody became his full-time briefer in November 2017. This role was usually on a one-year rotation, but Woody was continually asked to return. He essentially became President Donald Trump’s backup briefer during this time period as well. Woody remained the full-time briefer for several White House Chiefs of Staff until January 2021.

“Be willing to speak truth to power. I remember there were times that I said things to President Trump, President Obama, and Vice President Biden that they may not have wanted to hear, but they were the things that were the truth.”

Patrick Woody, ‘03, BA in History and Political Science

“The impact and the ability to do good makes me motivated to wake up each day,” Woody said. He also remarked that it was crucial to be candid and realistic, no matter the audience. “Be willing to speak truth to power. I remember there were times that I said things to President Trump, President Obama, and Vice President Biden that they may not have wanted to hear, but they were the things that were the truth.”

Woody was very aware of his position as an advocate for the average U.S. citizen. Describing this outlook, he said, “One of the things I always told my chief of staff and their deputies: ‘I’m going to tell you everything you need to know, everything you think you need to know, everything you don’t need to know. And then some things I’m going to tell you that are outside of intelligence, but are critically important for you to know, because you live in a bubble, and you need to know what the average person is thinking.’”

That frame of mind also lends a great deal to his attitude on retaining a sense of respect and empathy for all people. Professional roles are temporary, but, “It’s who you are as a person that never changes,” Woody said. “You have to acknowledge that deep intrinsic value of each person… as you move throughout your career and throughout your life, value everyone regardless of what they can offer you, because what they offer you shouldn’t matter. You should treat them with the same degree of respect that you would want to be treated.”

And, above all, Woody emphasizes the significance of human relationships and spending time with your loved ones. “Even as you move throughout the world and things get really good professionally for you, take time for your family, because those are the things that people will remember after you die,” he asserted. “Your career could be gone tomorrow, so value those things that you really don’t have a chance to get back.”

Written by Thomas Manning ‘22

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