October 31, 2013

Cornell Alumni Working in Public Sector Call Jobs ‘Inspiring’

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Despite partisanship and political sparring souring many Americans’ opinion of the government, young Cornell alumni who have entered the public sector say they have found meaning in their work.

“I never thought that I would be working for the federal government, but I am so happy that I am,” said Mackenzie Wallace ’12, a financial analyst at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Wallace said he discovered his interest in social entrepreneurship during his undergraduate years at Cornell. Later, when he realized that he could “do social good” and “still practice business” by working in the public sector, he began feeling inspired to join the government.

“I found out about the Bureau and this new inaugural program that they were starting, and I wanted to be a part of it. It is a phenomenal opportunity to help build an institution to have a lasting impact,” Wallace said.

Wallace said although there are professions he could have pursued that might have paid more, pay grade aside, he finds many aspects of his job rewarding.

“I mean, I don’t have the salary of an investment banker, nor do I work those hours, but there are a lot of perks that come with the job. Something that I love about the Bureau is that it is innovative –– not a word you would associate with government necessarily,” Wallace said. “[It’s also] mission-driven, and, like [President Barack] Obama said, is the second best place to serve [your country] after the military.”

Like Wallace, Mitchell Alva ’10, who works for the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, said he has also found tremendous value in his job with the government. As someone who studied industrial and labor relations at the University, Alva said he developed a passion for advocating workers’ rights and fighting economic inequality throughout his undergraduate years.

Now, “being able to really have an effect on how U.S. foreign policy prioritizes human rights … is something that I care very deeply about,” Alva said. “It’s the kind of work that you really would not have the opportunity to do anywhere but inside of the Department.”

Besides giving him the opportunity to build off of his Cornell education, working for the government, Alva said, has allowed him to explore his interests in ways that he would otherwise have not been able to do.

“I’ve gotten to travel and see a lot of the world. I’ve gotten to meet a lot of incredible individuals working in the State Department in D.C. and in embassies abroad and see the incredible work they do engaging with counterparts overseas both in foreign governments and in civil society and in private businesses,” Alva said.

The job is not perfect. As in other organizations, “you’re going to have to deal with bureaucracy and you’re going to have to deal with hierarchy,” Alva said.

Despite this, Alva said he feels that the drawbacks of working in the public sector “pale in comparison to the phenomenal opportunities” that he has had working for the government.

Erin Szulman ’12, who works as a special assistant in the Office of the Under Secretary for Management and Performance in the Department of Energy, echoed Alva’s sentiments.

“I’m financially comfortable in my current job and feel fortunate to be afforded the learning opportunities associated with this position,” Szulman said. “I work with a wonderful group of people who care deeply about serving their country and work tirelessly to support the Obama Administration.”

Like Wallace and Alva, Szulman solidified her interest in working for the public sector during her undergraduate years — when she interned in D.C. for three summers.

“Opportunities on the Hill, at the White House and at the Department of Defense made me appreciate the value and importance of public service and encouraged me to explore a career in government,” she said. “I was deeply interested in policy and international affairs in college and decided that the best place to pursue that was in DC working for the federal government.”

Ultimately, more students should consider working for the government after they graduate, Wallace said.

For a lot of Cornellians, “it’s just not even on the menu — but it really ought to be, because there is a lot of really interesting, really meaningful work that needs to be accomplished,” Wallace said.