Job: Finance and Program Coordinator, Stevens Initiative at The Aspen Institute
Location: Washington, D.C.
Dan and I were connected through Lukas, another D.C. local and friend from kickball. Though the two are involved in some of the same things outside of work, Dan shares different work struggles and successes. With a direct correlation between his experiences in college to his current job, you'll find his story relatable as he shares his moments of recognition, rejection and how to stay ahead.
Give us a brief background.
I'm originally from Pittsburgh but I live in Washington D.C. now. I went to school here and just stayed in Washington for the past couple of years, where I currently work at the Aspen Institute. I work specifically with a program called the Stevens Initiative that supports programs to connect students in the U.S., the Middle East, and North Africa through virtual exchange. What this looks like is using tools to facilitate interactions and cross-cultural dialogues between students from across the world, so they're not only learning the skills that they need to enter the career that they want, but they are also gaining those global competency skills of interacting and working with people from different backgrounds. Largely what I do is manage the federal grants and serve as the middleman between the grants and the programs.
How did you get into this field?
That is a great question. I guess I’ll need to backtrack a little bit. At American University, I studied international studies and economics, and was always really interested in working in the international field, whether that was government or nonprofit. I actually was very fortunate to have two study abroad experiences while in college. I went to Morocco and Senegal, so I always had such a passion and value for exchanges between students. I had a friend that worked at the Aspen Institute and she knew I was looking for a job right out of college. They were looking to fill a position and she was willing to connect me with the hiring manager. So one thing led to another and I've been in my position ever since for the past year and a half now.
Can you talk about a hardship that you've experienced since you joined the workforce and how you grew from that?
Absolutely. I would say the biggest thing, particularly since this is my first job, is recognizing the short-term versus long-term differences between school and post-grad life. Coming out of college, where you're constantly changing over in your courses each semester and having multiple internships, I was very used to the quick change and trying something new, and the turnover, and always feeling like I'm progressing toward something in the short-term. But the hardest thing from the start was the realization that I am in this job, probably for a while, and in order to get the skills built and the experience, there is a much longer-term process, rather than the short term experiences of college. It was definitely a hard adjustment for me to get comfortable with that and realizing that I should look at the bigger picture of my career rather than these constant short term things like in college.
How has age played a role in your career?
I would say there’s a positive and negative aspect with being 23 in my profession right now. Being so young, there are so many available opportunities to try new things or take on different roles with my own respective role. When I started here, I was just supporting the finance and program sides, but as I have developed and grown, I have modeled that I have the capacity to do many other things. On the flip side of that, because I'm so young, I always feel like there are some backstops of how much responsibility they're willing to give because there is that lack of experience and just the general idea or corporate mentality that we have to put our time in. You’re told that you have to work your way up the ladder, but I think that mentality is shifting a little bit.
What would you tell somebody looking to join a similar field?
Take every single opportunity you get because at this age there are so many different ways your life could go, especially in your career tracks. You might further advance down your field or jump around to different positions, especially in working with the federal government. If you take the opportunity to hone in on the hard skills, you can really jump around and work your way up among different programs and agencies here. These opportunities include meeting with new people and taking on any new tasks that your boss or your program offers, which really sets you up for success and gives you transferrable skills you can use later in your career as well.
What drives you right now?
Wow, that's the hardest question yet. Right now, what’s driving me is just making sure I try and do things to keep myself ahead. I realize that it can be hard when you compare yourself to your colleagues or your other friends in different fields who are advancing, and you wonder why you’re not advancing too. That has been difficult for me, so I think my biggest goal right now is to keep building my skills, taking on new opportunities, and realizing what I really find passionate in my work. I would say I'm very focused on broadening my horizon and always looking for the next career move.
How did you build your network in D.C.?
D.C. has a very large gay community, so that definitely was my go-to network right away. I knew one person who in a kickball league and he connected me there, so that’s how I got really involved in that community. It has just opened up a wide range of connections and now I walk down the streets in DC and feel like I at least run into one person I know from kickball. It’s really nice because once you tap into that network, you can truly approach anyone.
What do you do outside of the workplace as a young professional?
I don't know if you've heard this one yet, but D.C. is such a big sports league city, so I spend a lot of my time involved in that. I'm captain of my team in the gay kickball league called Stonewall and it's so much fun. It’s a really wide range of ages and there are about 40 people on the team, so managing that is kind of like a part-time job! I would say that the majority of the people I have met on my team are close friends at this point, so although the team has helped me personally, I have met so many people who help me professionally as well. Anywhere from helping me with taxes or even dealing with negotiating salaries at work, this team has helped me in more ways than one. And it’s just a fun way to let loose!
Can you talk about somebody who has inspired you?
I would say the person who has most inspired me was this T.A. teaching assistant I had in college, Deborah. She's honestly the person that has driven me and motivated me to take on as many opportunities as possible. Academically, she was so rigorous and took on so many cool opportunities, but she applied for scholarships and then like encouraged me to apply for them and I got them. So it's like almost I wanted to follow in her footsteps and staying close with her and seeing like the trajectory. She goes and all this stuff that she does that only motivates me more to continue to try and rise up to her level one day. So I would say she's my biggest inspiration.
Favorite podcast or book recommendation you would give?
I have one for each. I really like This American Life because it discusses a wide range of topics and I just think it covers it all. Book-wise, this is where I become pretty nerdy. I read a lot of history books and have been reading a lot about the Middle East recently. I actually went on an embassy visit and we were meeting with one of the ambassadors and happened to be talking about history. I was able to bring up details from one of the books I’ve read, so that was pretty cool. They were impressed.
Any last words of advice?
I guess if I had to impart one more piece of advice for people, I’d mention again how important it is to take every single opportunity that comes your way because at the end of the day if you apply for an opportunity and you don't get it, that should not stop you. It should keep you motivated and you should learn from it. Especially, coming from someone who has applied for a million things, I can't count the number of times that I've been rejected for something and didn't get it. Just take it as a learning opportunity because you’ll get it eventually.
The YoPro Know's Takeaways:
– The college lifestyle is very "short-term" while post-grad lifestyle is "long-term"
– The mindset of "climbing the corporate ladder" is shifting
– Broaden your career horizons by getting ahead and jumping at every opportunity
– Join a kickball league
– If you apply for an opportunity and don't get accepted, don't let that stop you; learn from it
Check it out: Stevens Initiative at The Aspen Institute, American University, This American Life