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Alumna charts career path toward fighting human trafficking

February 14, 2017

By Adam Beyer

Andrea Wilson, MPP/MBA’12, knew what she wanted when she came to the Sanford School.

She had developed an interest in combating human trafficking during her six years in finance and program development with nonprofit organizations in Washington state and wanted to make a career shift into the area. She applied to organizations in the field, but hit a snag—most required prior anti-trafficking experience. A dual master’s degree from Duke was the answer.

“Sanford was incredibly influential in getting me where I am today,” Wilson said.

Now a foreign affairs officer in the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, Wilson said she is happy with the path she has taken.

Upon graduating from Duke, Wilson was nervous, however. She had secured a job offer, but it was not in the anti-trafficking field. Ultimately, she turned it down. Working with the Career Services Office, she got connected with another alumna at the State Department.Andrea Wilson

That connection alerted her to a contractor job opening in the Trafficking in Persons Office and she was hired as a staff assistant, allowing her to get her foot in the door. Two years later, when a position on the political affairs team opened up, Wilson was ready to step in and take it.

She now oversees U.S. anti-trafficking efforts concerning eight South Asian countries, some of which have large problems with human trafficking.

“It was certainly a steep learning curve,” she said. “The second I came in, I was viewed as the expert on these eight countries’ trafficking in persons policies.”

Every day is different, she said, though there are some common themes.

The first half of the year is heavily centered around drafting the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, while the second half is more focused on diplomatic engagement with the eight countries under her purview.

As human trafficking has become more widely discussed in the media, the deluge of trafficking information she receives has increased. Beyond culling information, the job involves the painstaking work of building successful relationships with foreign officials in these countries.

“It’s trying to figure out how you work this issue into bilateral diplomacy that’s already established on very complex issues,” she said. “How do I figure out how to not supersede something like nuclear policy but still show that anti-human trafficking is in your interest to work on?”

Wilson also noted that working with countries with such different time-zones from the United States presents challenges in timely communication and 24-hour news cycles. She serves as the aide to her boss, Susan Coppedge, PPS’88, Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, during meetings with foreign leaders from the eight South Asian countries.

Although working on distressing problems can be difficult, Wilson said meeting practitioners working on the ground to try to end human trafficking gives her hope. Each year, the TIP Report features heroes from the field, who come to Washington, D.C., meet with the Secretary of State and share their lessons from their work in their home countries. They also have the opportunity to travel around the United States to learn about domestic efforts to fight trafficking.

“I am hopeful,” she said. “That doesn’t mean I don’t have dark days, but overall, we’re moving the needle on this.”

Wilson cited several Sanford professors as influences on her career, including Catherine Admay, Bruce Jentleson and Anirudh Krishna—in addition to her courses that focused on quantitative analysis

She urged current students to take risks in their careers in order to find what they love doing, noting that she was unemployed for a period of time before landing her current job.

“Those decision points were not without anxiety,” she said. “I wish I knew to chill out.”