Featured Interview, February
MB: Francisco during our last drink a few months ago we were discussing your job-seeking strategy. At that point you were interning with a personal member of Congress and interning with various other organizations for a little over a year. Now you are gainfully employed [with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee]; tell me about your experience and tell me how you did it.
FB: First, thank you for this opportunity. A large part of my journey was the mentors who guided me through the process. They were all aware of how important it is to give back to job seekers and they played an enormous roll in my success. What they mostly saw in me was my resilience and my positive outlook on finding a job and in them, I saw friendship. Networking is a buzzword in [Washington, DC] but I think it is too wrong a term. For me it was establishing meaningful relationships, building friendships and not being afraid to ask for help when the time came.
MB: And to that point you and I were able to strike up a friendship by sitting next to each other a CSIS event, it was really pure coincidence. On mentors, was there a particular mentor that really stands out in your mind, someone whom you received a solid piece of advice from or who stepped up at a critical moment during your search?
FB: Man, good question. I had a lot of tremendous mentors and I could be here all day talking about the wonderful things they taught me. I would prefer to highlight the mentors in all of the internships I’ve had and how important it is for job seekers to ask for and reach out to mentors. The folks that helped me provided me with not only invaluable advice but also other contacts who I could develop a relationship with throughout my journey. Before I knew it I created a web of relationships that I could refer to when navigating the DC job market.
MB: Tell me a little more about the internships you’ve held, a chronology if you will.
FB: After graduating in May 2012, I started interning for the Foundation for the Defense for Democracies, and the director for their Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross. I considered it a great introduction to DC, learned a lot, but also a sobering realization that the actual transition from unpaid intern to paid employee is going to be a lot of work. After FDD, I was introduced to an alumni of Wake Forest, who now I consider a good friend from the Center for New American Security and started an external external relations internship there. That’s when I learned more about professional etiquette, the inner workings of the DoD and garnered some intense research experience from some of the brightest minds in DC. It was a CNAS mentor that suggested I go to the Hill. After I agreed, he set me up with an internship in Congressman Beto O’Rourke’s office.
MB: Recently I read that Congressman O’Rouke made the Hill’s 50 Hottest People, is that something that you hope to achieve during your time on the Hill?
FB: Haha, I don’t think that is necessarily my short-term goal but I was a big fan of the list and happy to see Congressman O’Rouke made it.
MB: Fair enough. Continue with the internship experiences.
FB: Well, very quickly I learned the Hill is a totally different world than the think-tank world. I was fascinated by the inner dynamics of a Congressional office and the Hill culture in general. I became a champion at informational interviews. It was during my transition to another Hill office, Congresswoman Kathy Kastor, that I had an interview with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The mentors that I had from all of the previous internships were there to guide me through the interview process and three rounds of interviews later, I am part of the Committee full-time and paid.
MB: Through that whole experience what was the most challenging aspect of being an intern for you? Was it trying to stay motivated, your living situation, WMATA, not having a steady paycheck at the time? What was it for you?
FB: The hardest part was the lingering thought of the permanent intern culture. It’s tough to graduate from a reputable university and then have to struggle to find something that is paid when you know you are qualified. But it is all about the way you separate yourself from that fear of not finding a job. For me, in order to stay motivated after a failed interview or not hearing back from an organization, I reached out to mentors and set up another informational interview. You have to see it as fun, as a learning experience and meeting with people shouldn’t be taxing. As one door closes, another one opens. Also, DC life in general is really expensive. My family couldn’t support me financially as I looked for paid positions and I came to this town with just my graduation money. I took on some part-time jobs. I had difficult living situations as well. At one point I lived in the back room of an office for six months. The pressure was high too. I am a first generation immigrant and the first one in my family to receive a college degree in the US. Not being able to get a job right after graduation was really frustrating. There was pressure that I was letting my family down. But I had a lot of support from my mother and family and kept my head up and my hopes high.
MB: As you’ve suggested, it take can often take more than just a degree to get into the professional job market, especially in the foreign policy field. What non-traditional educational experience have you found the most valuable in your career trajectory?
FB: In high school and college I did a lot of policy debate. I continued to assist debate teams during the internships I had. Honing your debating skills is particularly important when it comes to the actual interview and it allows you to stay on your toes. For me it was also the ability to put myself out there. It was being able to meet with enough people so that they could see who I was beyond what I had on my resume. The DC foreign policy world is small; word of mouth goes a long way.
MB: Tell me about being a staff assistant for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. What is the most exciting part of the job so far?
FB: The most exciting part of the job so far is being around tremendously smart people. I am surrounded by foreign policy experts in all regions of the globe. Being able to work with them and absorb their knowledge while getting a better understanding of the legislative process is the best part.
MB: What advice to do have for young professionals starting a new career in foreign policy or trying to break into the field?
FB: Realize that it is going to take more than a college degree. Certainly, a degree is a strong component of your success but expect to have to get an internship just after graduation. First, internships are great opportunities to give you those hands-on, professional skillsets that will be valuable in any work environment. Second, something I should have done as an undergraduate is bolster my writing skills. A lot of that can be done through publications and my suggestion is to find different outlets to work on your writing. Whether it’s blogging or asking for writing samples at different organizations, anything helps. And third, as I mentioned earlier, the social and professional relationships. I can’t stress the importance of mentors and establishing relationships with people that want to help you and that know you would help them. They not only open doors to different job opportunities but also teach you how to navigate DC.
MB: How has YPFP helped your professional development?
FB: YPFP hosts many great events. They are great experiences because you meet a lot of like-minded people and listen to the experts in the foreign policy community. I remember going to a networking dinner and meeting many thoughtful individuals who had a lot of insights when it came to foreign policy. I would highly recommend anyone interested in FP to join.
MB: Thank you, Francisco, for taking the time to share your advice and speak about your path to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. We’ll certainly keep track of what you are doing since we know you are destined for great things.