How to Find a Career With Uncle Sam

Originally published in The Washington Monthly for their September/October 2014 issue
——

Juny Canenguez was just beginning her junior year at Virginia’s George Mason University in 2012 when she heard that the Obama administration was offering paid internships in the federal government through a new initiative called the Pathways Programs. Eager for what she calls “real-life experience” and interested in foreign affairs, she went to the State Department’s career website and applied for a Pathways internship. She was accepted, and for the next two years she worked two days a week at State while finishing her degree in business management. One of the highlights of her internship, Canenguez says, was getting to meet foreign and civil service officers, hear about their experiences, and take in their advice. Now out of college, she’s in the process of being converted to a formal federal employee, thanks to her time as an intern. “It was amazing,” says Canenguez. “I’m now being recruited to Civil Service, and my long-term plan will be to join the Foreign Service,” which, if she succeeds, will allow her to be posted as a diplomat overseas.

Working for the government can be a great career choice—maybe not as remunerative as a job on Wall Street, but potentially far more rewarding and socially useful. There are federal jobs available for almost every interest and skill, whether that’s politics, physics, art, or even event planning. And, contrary to popular conception, 84 percent of federal government jobs are outside of the Washington, D.C., area, so you can tailor your employment opportunities around where you most want to live. (Fifty thousand federal government employees work abroad, in more than 140 foreign countries.)

President Obama signed an executive order in 2010 creating the Pathways Programs with the expressed aim of attracting greater numbers of talented and diverse young adults into government work. The Pathways Programs are comprised of three divisions.

The Internship Program, designed for current students, provides paid work opportunities in federal agencies for a limited period of time. Interns can work either on a part-time or full-time basis.

Next there is the Recent Graduates Program, which is open to individuals who have completed, within the previous two years, an associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, professional, doctorate, vocational, or technical degree or certificate from a qualifying educational institution. These recent graduates can work in federal agencies while also taking advantage of substantial career training and mentorship opportunities.

Lastly, the Presidential Management Fellows Program is a leadership and career-development program for those with newly minted graduate degrees.

In all three divisions of the Pathways Programs, if you successfully complete the term of service you can receive what is known as “noncompetitive eligibility” when applying for federal jobs. This means that your employer can convert you straight from a Pathways participant into a permanent employee or you can apply for other federal positions without having to go through the standard, and highly competitive, USAJOBS application process.

Channing Martin, a former Pathways intern in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), was hired immediately after her internship ended into a permanent, full-time position at the OPM; she now works as a program and management analyst. “As a high schooler I was always really interested in diversity and inclusion issues,” Channing said, “and when I realized this intern program existed, I was really attracted to that.” Channing spent her yearlong internship on a rotation between different departments within the OPM, having the chance to get her feet wet in a broad range of governmental duties and responsibilities, experimenting with tasks ranging from understanding the role of performance management to supporting efforts to expand equal pay to learning how to write requirements for database systems. Channing did all this while balancing her time as a full-time student; she spent her second year at Carnegie Mellon’s public policy graduate school living in D.C., interning during the day and taking classes by night.

“Interning for the federal government allows you to check out exactly what kind of work they do and decide if it resonates with you,” said Tim McManus, vice president for education and outreach at the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit that advocates for the reinvigoration of the civil service workforce. “If you go and do an internship at the EPA or the Department of Energy, you’ll be exposed to not just the mission but the way the agency works. Is the culture one that is good for you? Is it fast-paced? Is it too slow? You have the ability to see for yourself.”

The Forgotten Side of the Immigration Debate

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on March 8th, 2013.
————————————————————————

Recently, I returned home from a three-week stay in Guanajuato, Mexico. I lived with a gracious Mexican family, took Spanish classes and had the chance to immerse myself in Mexican culture. Mexican society was beautiful and vibrant — full of ideas, art and religion. Needless to say, the crude stereotypes of drug cartels and kidnappings were hardly relevant or applicable to my experience, or the experience of anyone I met.

As my trip wound down, I said to my host parents, “Por favor, vengan a visitar a mi familia en los Estados Unidos!” I wanted them to come see my house and meet my family in Pennsylvania. They smiled sadly and told me that would not be likely, because of the difficult hurdles and high costs of obtaining tourist visas.

They are right, of course. While it is not impossible, it is much harder for Mexicans than for, say, Canadians and Europeans to travel to the United States — because Mexico is not part of the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. This program allows individuals to travel without a visa to the United States for stays of 90 days or less.

Indeed, I also did not need to apply for a visa to travel to Mexico for my visit. But for most countries in the world, and for not-unfounded reasons, potential visitors need to go through various steps in an often arduous process. They must do an interview at a consulate office abroad; they need to file paperwork that shows they have significant ties that keep them at home; and they need to show proof that they are not likely to become a burden on the public system if they travel to the U.S. In essence, if you are not part of the Visa Waiver Program, the burden of proof is on you.

“It’s kind of a crap shoot [for Mexicans], it takes a long time, and it’s expensive,” said Eleanor Sohnen, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. Whether or not they are ultimately granted a visa, prospective visitors must still pay the nonrefundable $160 application fee, or about 2,037 pesos. “They are often declared ineligible, so they may be dissuaded from even trying at all,” Ms. Sohnen said.

Just how difficult it is for applicants from Mexico (or any other country) to visit the United States is challenging to address, because the State Department does not publish the number of applications it receives for non-immigrant visas, only the number of visas ultimately issued. Thus there is no clear number available to the public of how many applicants were denied.

Back home in the U.S., I now find “comprehensive immigration reform” splashed across the front pages of the major newspapers. They are full of discussions about tighter border controls, crackdowns on employers, paths to citizenship, bipartisan consensus, the DREAM Act, the Latino vote and changing demographics. I read all of it closely to try and understand exactly if and how my host family would be affected by these proposed changes.

It seems to me that the conversation is leaving out those individuals from Mexico who are not looking to come to the United States to work, to study or to live. To the extent that they are included in the national discussion, it’s merely to point out symptoms of a problem we need to address with those who overstay their visas. With all the talk of enhanced security on the borders, I can’t help but remember how easily I was able to cross their border to explore and to learn. I remember how American music frequently blasts on their radios and how my host mom’s favorite television shows were “Bones” and “NCIS” (translated into Spanish). American culture is alive and present in Mexico, but the vast majority of Mexicans that could theoretically visit America will likely never have that chance.

I would think that with our country’s economic woes, there must be something we can do to address our fundamental immigration problems while still encouraging tourism from Mexican citizens. The system as it stands now discourages it.

To be sure, many of the 11 million illegal immigrants in this country entered legally and then overstayed their visas. I recognize this is an enormous and expensive problem. But I find it hard to believe that the only way we can sufficiently limit the number of undocumented workers in the United States is by making it extremely hard for most Mexicans to visit. We certainly have the minds and ingenuity to create a system that ensures those who travel on tourist visas return to their host country, and that eases the process of applying for and obtaining tourist visas.

I am not suggesting Mexico be added now to the Visa Waiver Program but that we do look more closely at the hurdles to travel that many well-intentioned Mexicans face. Include them in the national immigration reform discussion. The increased tourism would economically benefit our country, as would affording others the same freedoms to travel that we so often take for granted.

I’d like to one day welcome into my home my host parents — two hard-working individuals who have no desire to move to America.