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EMBARK: New Program Helps Undergrads Launch Careers in Policy, Nonprofits & Advocacy

October 29, 2015

“When I come to the end of the road, will it matter to me more that I took a lucrative job out of college because it was the expected path, or did I pursue that dream to help start a secondary school …” wrote Jay Sullivan PPS’16.

When Sullivan’s op-ed was published in the Duke Chronicle in September, the Sanford Career Services Office had just launched a program designed to help students like him who want to pursue a less “expected path.” EMBARK: navigating and networking for aspiring policy professionals seeks to provide career search strategies, networking opportunities and resources to help student find entry-level policy-related positions. It also aims to generate excitement for public sector and nonprofit careers more broadly on campus.

Created with student input, EMBARK is benefiting from collaboration with the Duke Career Center, POLIS, Sanford faculty, and the Hart Leadership Program, as well as from expertise being shared by alumni.

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  • John McGinty & Sanford students

    Panel member Daniel Sills PPS'06 talks with EMBARK students at the reception in the Duke in Washington office. Sills works as a legislative assistant for Congressman G.K. Butterfield (D-NC).

One of the first events was a trip to Washington, D.C. from Sunday to Tuesday during fall break in October.

The 26 juniors and seniors started their day with a workshop where they practiced delivering a strong elevator speech. Then they heard a talk about the Washington, culture and tips for alumni networking and informational interviewing by Associate Director of POLIS Landy Elliott. Elliott, a Duke alumna, is former director of the Duke in Washington office. In the afternoon, there was time to explore the capitol city during a tour arranged by the office of Rep. G.K. Butterfield’s (D-NC) office.

A reception hosted with the DukeDC Public Policy Alumni Committee and Duke Policy & Politics Network gave students a chance to network with more than 40 alumni. Frederick “Fritz” Mayer, associate dean for strategy and innovation, spoke about recent developments at the Sanford School, such as the creation of POLIS, the center for politics, leadership, innovation and service.

Tuesday morning involved a series of round-table discussions where 21 alumni shared advice about job hunting in Washington and talked with small groups of students about entry-level positions in their various fields.

Panel member Melissa Yeo PPS’13, shared her experiences in how to succeed in the field of social change advocacy and strategic communications.

“It's an incredible opportunity for current students that I wish I'd had as an undergraduate,” Yeo said. “I'm glad Sanford is doing this and I hope the school continues to provide this really practical, valuable support to its upperclassmen.” ,  Yeo is a senior coordinator for public policy with Burness Communications.

EMBARK program manager Suzanne Valdivia said she was “thrilled with the number of DC-based alumni who took part in the trip, from attending the reception to taking time to serve on the round-table discussions.

“They were so generous with their time and encouraged our students to follow up with them as soon as they got back to campus. One panelist even told us that he had held off posting a job because he wanted to let them know about it first.”

“I know I would have loved for this event to have existed while I was in school and look forward to increased connectivity between current students and alums,” said panel member John McGinty PPS’13. He works as a research assistant in the policy advisory group at the Urban Institute, working on U.S. housing and economic development issues.

"I took an unusual path at Duke, leaving school for two years to pursue campaign opportunities before returning to complete my degree," said Taylor  Williams, PPS'11, associate program director at the Voter Participation Center. "To be able to share that experience with students and see their interest was inspiring to me. I was impressed by the number of students who followed up with me after the event, and I even did an informational phone interview with one of them the following weekend."

Participants had opportunities to make solid connections. As Alyssa Coughenour PPS’16 wrote in her blog post, “While there, I attended three networking and job search workshops, met numerous alumni at a Duke in D.C. reception, and participated in roundtable discussions on jobs in different areas of public policy (the Hill, think tanks, agencies, strategic communications, etc.). Without even counting the wonderful food included, the value of this trip was extraordinary.” 

Valdivia is looking for alumni to help with the program throughout the year by bringing their advice about job hunting in their specific areas to campus in a small, group setting 

“If alumni are planning to visit Duke, we can arrange for informal meetings with students or if a campus visit isn’t feasible, we can have a Skype-based session,” said Valdivia.