WASHINGTON, D.C. – On a cool, clear morning in late October, 39 students in the Penn State School of International Affairs (SIA) loaded onto a charter bus sitting outside the Lewis Katz Building in University Park. Along with several staff members, including SIA Director Scott Gartner and Director of Career Services Grant Littke, the students headed to our nation’s capital for SIA’s annual D.C. Career Exposure Trip, a two-day tour packed with informational meetings at organizations focused on international affairs and related fields.
SIA organizes the annual career outing—in addition to a trip to either Philadelphia or Pittsburgh later in the fall and to New York City in the spring—to help students explore career options, gain advice from potential employers, and expand their professional networks.
“The D.C. trip gave me a new experience visiting great organizations that I didn’t know about before. More than just a trip, it also helped me to get acquainted with my classmates by sharing ideas and, most importantly, our life prospects,” said Ratna Uar. “It was a great opportunity to meet many amazing people from the organizations we visited.”
This year, students met with key staff members, many of them in leadership positions, from six organizations: The MITRE Corporation, a nonprofit that operates multiple federally funded research and development centers and works to solve problems in the public interest; D3 Systems, a research analytics firm that provides data and analysis to a variety of clients across the globe; PAE, which provides services and support to the U.S. government and its partners; the International Republican Institute, a nonpartisan democracy-development NGO with offices in 40 countries; the United States Energy Association, an association of public and private organizations that represents the broad interests of the U.S. energy sector; and the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, which advocates for strengthening the United States’ international development and diplomacy efforts.
The first day of the trip included stops at MITRE and D3 Systems, capped off with an alumni reception at the Darlington House on Dupont Circle. Attended by current students, alumni, faculty, board members, and a number of special guests prominent in the field of international affairs, the reception presented a valuable opportunity for students to build their network in a relaxed setting. Among the distinguished guests were Ambassador (ret.) Laura Holgate, vice president for materials risk management at NTI who previously served as U.S. representative to the Vienna Office of the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency; Ambassador (ret.) Theodore Kattouf, president and CEO of AMIDEAST, SIA Advisory Board member, Penn State alumnus, and former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and to Syria; Dr. Jenifer Smith, director of the Department of Forensic Sciences in D.C., Penn State alumna, former special agent and section chief at the FBI, and former head of the Biological Technology Center at the CIA; Dr. Alan Feng, economist at the International Monetary Fund (IMF); Alibi Baiturin, director of the Bolashak Representative Office at the Embassy of the Republic of Kazakhstan; and Kemper Vest Gay, policy analyst at SAIC. Among SIA faculty and staff in attendance were SIA Director Gartner; Career Services Director Littke; Ambassador Joseph DeThomas, SIA professor of practice; and Professor of Practice Herb Wolfe, who is also the director and acting chief of staff of the Office of the Chief Medical Officer at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
At the reception and throughout the trip, networking with professionals from a variety of fields and at all levels of experience was a major theme. In addition, the power of the Penn State alumni network was on display, as students met with Penn State alumnus Barry Worthington, USEA executive director; Penn State alumna Rhonda Mays, deputy regional director for Asia at IRI; and SIA alumna Ayona Riley ‘17, program grants assistant at Macfadden, a subsidiary of PAE, in addition to meeting Penn State alumni Ambassador Kattouf and Dr. Smith at the reception.
“Having the opportunity to engage not only with SIA alumni but also professionals holding vast experience from successful careers gave us unique insight on what to expect and how to avoid rookie mistakes,” said Josh Evans, a second-year SIA student. “It was a true honor to talk to so many distinguished yet down-to-earth people, as well as a humbling and gratifying experience to learn from their experiences.”
“This was a wonderful experience that I will never forget—being able to network with high-level professionals from prestigious organizations in the U.S. capital,” said first-year student Youssef Eldesouky. “Also, it is always great to meet SIA alumni during the reception and to learn about their careers since graduation.”
Day two of the trip brought the students to PAE, the International Republican Institute (IRI), U.S. Energy Association (USEA), and U.S. Global Leadership Coalition (USGLC). The meeting at USEA was noteworthy in that its offices are located in the Ronald Reagan Building, the largest structure in D.C. and the first and only federal building dedicated to both government and private use. The building houses numerous agencies and organizations that work in the domain of international affairs, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Washington International Trade Association (WITA), and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
For many students, the trip provided deeper insight into the job market.
“Many of us are looking for careers that we can be passionate about, rather than just a job,” said second-year student Jason Winters. “And so the most valuable aspect of the trip was the opportunity to network with various organizations, and to find out not only their expectations, but also what employment areas within a company appeal to us, so that we can make decisions that are in synch with our interests.”
Some students go to D.C. with a clear idea of what their interests are.
“In the next three to five years, I see myself in a career that revolves around public policy and this trip has exposed me to numerous insights and opportunities that exist in the policy-relevant world of international affairs,” said first-year student Emefa Abena Rashida Yengbe. “In this regard, I believe this trip will assist me in making informed decisions about the various areas to explore in this evolving and exciting field.”
In many cases, however, students are still considering several career paths; for them, the D.C. trip provides an opportunity to learn more about their interests and how to better align their studies.
“Prior to D.C., I did not have an interest in cybersecurity, but having met with multiple organizations that were exceptionally advanced in this area compelled me to reevaluate the endless possibility in the world of international relations,” said first-year SIA student Channalyn Tek, whose concentration is in corporate social responsibility with a focus on sustainability, human rights, and gender equality.
“Coming from a non-political background with my undergraduate studies in engineering, the most beneficial aspect of the trip for me was seeing what types of organizations recruit students from SIA,” added Jason Cornelius, a Ph.D. candidate in aerospace engineering at Penn State who is pursuing SIA’s International Affairs Certificate. “The D.C. trip helped me connect the dots between what is important at school and what is important on the job. I now feel that I have a better understanding of what pursuits I should take on and which skills I should focus on in order to attain my goals.”
Students consistently described the D.C. trip as an invaluable component of the SIA program that will help them along the path toward a successful career.
“To those considering SIA for graduate school, I want to say that this trip will help you identify new internship options and, I believe, is a valuable piece of the puzzle that is your future career goals,” said Ratna Uar.
“I would definitely recommend this trip to future students because you have the opportunity to develop an interest in different career paths that you may not have considered before,” added Channalyn Tek.
For Josh Evans, who will graduate in spring 2020, the SIA career trips are an essential complement to knowledge gained in the classroom during the two-year master’s program.
“My experience here has shown me that a successful career requires learning beyond academia,” he said. “The D.C. trip helps make the world of international affairs real and palpable, while inspiring us to work hard toward our professional goals.”