1 Year Out is an interview series highlighting alumni from the class of 2014 who are engaged in public service, entrepreneurship, or nonprofit work in any capacity- through their employment, a volunteer position, or on the side.
So tell me about your life 1 Year Out of Wesleyan!
Hello friends! For the last year, I’ve been working at American Security Project as Special Assistant to the CEO and Board of Directors in Washington, DC and living with my partner in crime who is a junior kindergarten and kindergarten teacher at a free all-boys school in South East… and our recently adopted pit bull pup ziva bell hooks. ASP is a non-partisan national security organization founded by then-Senators John Kerry and Chuck Hagel. We look at national security as much bigger than conflict and focus not just on the root causes of those conflicts but innovative solutions to to preventing those conflicts. So that means things like climate and energy security, economic diplomacy and American competitiveness, Nuclear security, asymmetric operations, etc.
How are you involved in public service, entrepreneurship, or nonprofit work?
We’re a 501(c)3 formed with the explicit mission of educating the public about national security concerns, building consensus through research, discussion, and other engagement and offering dynamic solutions going forward. While my position runs the gamut, the bulk of my work is focused on American competitiveness and economic diplomacy/development- which means engaging the private sector in the work that we do. I get to work at the nexus of security, business, and policy. And I love it.
How did you get there?
I started as an intern immediately after graduation, despite taking 0 government classes (what up, University Major). I knew someone at the organization and was incredibly hesitant about taking the internship because it was so important to me that I did it on my own, but Makaela pushed me to be brave and do it anyway. I’m so glad I did. While the connection got my resume in the door, I realize now it didn’t get me my internship…and certainly didn’t get me my job.
Describe a typical day at your position.
What is this typical day you speak of?
My day is a constant stream of drafting briefing notes, fielding press calls, coordinating meetings on The Hill, managing interns, and connecting with our private sector partners and other stakeholders. This means I write papers, reports, fact sheets and blog posts on issues; stay in almost constant contact with our leadership and partners about engaging business as a force for change, etc. I’m always balancing multiple projects with topics that seem completely unrelated but it’s been an incredible experience. I also have almost complete autonomy over my schedule- so as long as I get my work done and communicate, I can be in the office whenever I want/need to be. I’m free to set up meetings with people I want to connect with, attend conferences and events all over town, etc. I’ve been able to balance working, completing HBX’s CORe program, and preparing to audition to sing Handel’s “Messiah” at the Kennedy Center.
While my work life balance isn’t perfect, I am fortunate to have an employer who is openly invested in my future and encourages me to pursue all of my interests 100%.
How do your race, gender, class background, sexuality, and other identities factor into your work?
All the time.
I am the only female-identifying staff member in the organization. It isn’t uncommon for our sector, but we’re working hard to change that. Since moving to DC, it’s become even more clear how important strong female-identifying mentors are and I’m eager to help build as I climb.
Race and ethnicity is also a huge factor in my position. While there are often other people of Middle Eastern, Persian or North African ethnicity or race “around,” I don’t often have the opportunity to interact with them- especially women of color. The number of times I’ve been referred to as “exotic” in a meeting or at an event by someone I don’t know is frightening. Having the full support of my entire organization- particularly the leadership and Board, in these situations has helped to empower me to take a stand in those situations.
My MENA background has also been helpful, though. I’m often in touch with people- largely men in the private sector, from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Qatar, Turkey, in my work. Being able to relate on a cultural and ethnic level does give me an upper hand in some situations. It’s something I’ve been struggling with, because I don’t believe in commoditizing my ethnicity and race but I’ve come to understand some of the constraints of reality, I guess.
Tell me about a time you felt really effective making change in the world.
Today I launched our Business Council for American Security (BCAS). We took this idea of the tragedy of the commons in business and are actively engaging the private sector to remedy it. The Council will not only strengthen our organization’s impact, but also help ignite the vision of business as a vehicle for positive, sustained social change.
This is the issue I am most passionate about. I created my University Major around it. I wrote my honor’s thesis on it. To be 13 months out of school and be able to say that I’m leading a well-known organization’s effort to be a part of the change we need is incredible. I am so privileged to have the cards fall where they have…I don’t even think I can articulate it.
What’s the hardest thing about your position that you’re willing to share?
I’m a 23 year old cisgender, non-white but occasionally passing woman who has authority as a gatekeeper and decision maker. Most of the time that authority is not respected or acknowledged, especially on the first try.
What are some characteristics that would make your type of work hard for someone?
My role didn’t exist when I started at ASP, but it’s now become an invaluable part of the organization. The vast majority of the time, I don’t receive an assignment- I make one. Not everyone is comfortable with this kind of independence, especially only a year out of undergrad. Frankly, I find it terrifying, but I don’t let it stop me.
What’s the best advice you’ve received?
Fly. Soar. Be bold.
What would you recommend to current students considering work like yours?
Reach out to me- seriously.
People in DC (and everywhere) are in such a rush to be considered an expert and are too afraid to look ignorant. Be brave and ask questions- admit what you don’t know and stand by your expertise when you do.
What has made all the difference in my career trajectory in it’s short life thus far is my willingness to ask questions. I’ve learned more this way- and built a reputation as someone who will work hard to get “it” done even if it means admitting I don’t know everything. You would be shocked how many interns, staffers, associates, CEOs, etc. I’ve met who are too afraid to do this. If you can swallow your pride, the right people will take notice.
If Wes students or recent grads have questions about working in your field, could they contact you?
If you are a graduate of the Class of 2014 working in public service, entrepreneurship, or nonprofits and would like to be featured on the blog, please email me.