The Burnish Interview: Virginia Hume Onufer

What do you find most rewarding about work at this stage in your career?

I work for myself now, from home.  I have a lot of flexibility, both in terms of schedule and in the ability to pick the projects I want to do.

What’s the biggest challenge?

I was very excited to go out on my own, but have found my vision was a little bit off the mark.

The vision:  “I’ll get so much done during the day, as I’ll have no distractions from colleagues/meetings/etc.   With such efficiency, I can breeze out in the afternoon to go to my daughters’ games, take care of errands and personal appointments.  I will feed my family nutritious meals, and exercise more.”

The reality:  7:30 a.m.- rouse children who are well past age when they should get up on own. Herd/drive them to school.  Get home, ready to work, but face immediate distraction by landscapers with twelve (unanswerable) questions. After short stint working, receive tearful call from school about forgotten [laptop/lacrosse stick/project/etc]. Take pity and drive said item to school despite supposed belief in letting kids suffer consequences of actions.  Finally down sit down to work.  Get a little done, but then look at watch and curse audibly (advantage to working solo – audible only to self and puppy) as daughter’s ice hockey game at [insert name of remote rink] begins in 15 minutes.  Tear out door and squeal into rink lot on two wheels.  Six hours later after driving everyone all over kingdom come and somehow feeding family despite gross lack of preparation (repeating mantra Panera is not fast food, Panera is not fast food under breath), return to work. 

(All that said: I wouldn’t go back to an office job right now for love or money.)

You consult with kids writing their college essays, does that make you more or less concerned about the future state of the world?

I know, right?  Very polite of you to refrain from audibly groaning.  The title “Creative Writing Tutor” would be more apt, but I don’t know if anyone thinks, “Wow, I really MUST get a creative writing tutor for my rising senior!”  

I took a creative writing class my senior year in high school. Many of our college essays originated in that class, and so painlessly. We didn’t know that’s what we were doing until the teacher said, “this would be a good college essay.” Ta-dah!  These days, you can’t wait for a creative writing class senior year (if you even take one). And students can be paralyzed by this exercise. I hope I make it fun, and that they learn something while writing a (successful) essay. 

I work with students at any stage in the process.  For those who need topics, I have a crazy questionnaire designed to elicit ideas.  The best topics are often “small stories, well told,” and brainstorming is the treasure hunt to find those stories.  Like the student who wrote about working at a store when a bird got loose in the stockroom.  Or the one who “failed” the Myers Briggs personality test.  (The administrator told her she had to change her answers because she wasn’t able to categorize her.  That student got into University of Chicago, which loves an un-categorizable student!)

I’ll help students as they draft, but again, more as a coach.  They need help getting out of the expository writing box, with (snooze-inducing) thesis sentences and “hamburger paragraphs.”  Maybe they open the essay by throwing the reader right into the middle of the story, or use personification or a different point of view.  I also help them find their voices.  I might say, “Stand in front of the mirror by yourself and tell this story as if you’re telling it to your friends.”  It’s easier to pare back excessive colloquialisms than to make a robotic essay sound authentic.

It’s really fun.  My students got into great schools last year.  If the essays helped, it was ultimately because of what THEY did.  THEY found their voices.  THEY conveyed something authentic. I just helped them tease it out.  I love the age, have loved the students I’ve worked with.  I think the future is bright!

How old are your children? 

My girls are going into ninth and eleventh grades.  No one is driving yet.   Except me.  Everywhere.  All the time.

What’s the best thing that happened to you today?

I was stuck in the house while a cabinetmaker put new doors on my kitchen cabinets. My 13-year-old walked to Bethesda and picked us up dinner at Cava. 

(Wait, that’s two things.  My cup runneth over!)

What keeps you up at night?


Best vacation

So many for so many reasons, but I’ll give you a recent one:  Sea Island, Georgia last year right after Christmas.  My two best friends from Vanderbilt and our families.  All of us together, twenty-seven many years after we graduated. Our kids did skits.  We played Cards against Humanity. We laughed a lot.  We sang songs.  It was cold and drizzly and didn’t matter.  It was wonderful.

Describe the worst boss you ever had and what you learned from him or her

I had a great boss in Boston who left and was replaced with a guy who had, among many flaws, a habit of hiring sleazy relatives to fill jobs for which they were grossly underqualified.  Very mafia-esque for a white collar marketing company. The board actually told him to “stop hiring family members.”  He kept doing it, though, but made them “consultants.”

I had to go on a business trip with his cousin Frank, a “consultant.” We had an early Wednesday meeting and arrived in Chicago the night befoere. When we walked into our meeting the next morning, someone asked, “How’d you sleep?” “I slept okay,” he said. Then he pointed at me and added “but she snored all night.””  

I was about 28. He was about 60 (and looked like Boris Yeltsen).  That’s the kind of thing these people did.  I needed to get out.  I wanted to move back to D.C., but it’s hard to find a job long distance.  I was haunted by the adage, “never leave a job until you have a job!”

After much hand wringing, I moved home jobless.  I did writing projects and volunteered on a gubernatorial campaign.  Then the campaign hired me full time, which led to my next job in politics, and so on. It wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been willing to take a leap for once. 

What did I learn?   You can, actually, have a surfeit of prudence. 

(If, for example, you find yourself stuck working with demented, sexual harassing, mobster types). 

Favorite item of clothing

Not the most exciting, but for good looks and pure utility, a black silk cardigan from Eileen Fisher.  I think it’s the only thing I’ve ever bought from that store, but I’ve worn it a million times and it’s held up incredibly well.  

Favorite store

On my side of the river:  Julia Farr’s boutique in Friendship Heights.  But I’ll cross the river for Kiskadee!




Photo David Baratz
Photo David Baratz

Virginia Hume Onufer’s career, as she says, “makes sense only in hindsight.”  She graduated from Vanderbilt University and worked in traditional marketing in D.C. and Boston.  After a bad experience with a demented, sexually harassing mobster-like boss (see interview) she moved back to D.C. area for a little jag⃰ into political communications.⃰⃰  ⃰  She was Deputy Communications Director for Ellen Sauerbrey’s 1984 race for Maryland governor, which Ellen had stolen out from under her narrowly lost, then worked in the press office at the Republican National Committee under the legendary Haley Barbour.  An engagement/marriage/two children followed in short order, so the private sector called.  Over thirteen years she worked in public affairs communications, including a decade at Quinn Gillespie & Associates, working three days a week from the time her older daughter was born in 1999 until she went out on her own in 2010.

Virginia’s present focus is on her new practice area, college essay consulting, and on writing and editing for public affairs clients.  She is still occasionally pressed into service providing strategic communications counsel, and often partners with Boyle Public Affairs on projects that require a larger team.

She is the creator and editor of, a roundup of recommended book titles and brief reviews gathered from “hundreds of clever friends and acquaintances.”  This is a money-making enterprise, as well as a labor of love.  Virginia estimates she makes about $.00000001 per hour as an Amazon Associate.

Though she claims to teach lessons in saying “no”***Virginia is as overextended as the rest of us.

⃰⃰⃰ Jag:  A nice euphemism for the more lurching moments in a career. 

⃰  ⃰  That’s the hindsight thing!  The demented boss served a great purpose:  He made politics seem sane.

⃰  ⃰  ⃰School your face into an expression of sincere regret.  Say “no,” but use a tone that suggests it is the saddest thing in the world that you cannot help with [insert name of  thing you’d rather have your teeth pulled out than do].

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