No matter how much planning you do during your last semesters of college, it can be hard to predict where your career is going to take you after you walk across the graduation stage. Even if you have a job or an internship set up, you will likely be exposed to new opportunities that can take your career in a completely different direction than you had anticipated.
Take Melinda Burks for example. While she is currently a Senior Program Officer for the English Access Micro Scholarship Program at the State Department, she started out her post-grad years dabbling in public relations and event planning. She was even an English language teacher. Burks explained that she was not satisfied with her first few jobs out of college, but was at a loss as to what she should do.
“One day I sat down and decided that I wanted to travel the world,” she said. “I told myself that until I really figure out what it is that I want to do, I would travel and experience other cultures. But the tricky part was figuring out how to do that while still making money.” In order to do this, Burks got her certificate in teaching English and started traveling abroad to teach.
Soon after she started teaching English, Burks knew it was what she wanted to do. “I fell in love with teaching English to non-native speakers and decided to get my Master’s degree in it,” she said. During her Master’s program, a classmate told Burks about how she wanted to be a foreign service officer. Burks explained that she had never heard of a foreign service officer before and really didn’t know what the State Department did but she became interested in it as a possible career path.
“I knew I wanted to teach English but I didn’t know the government offered opportunities to teach English language because I didn’t come from a family where we discussed politics or government,” Burks explained. However, after listening to her classmate talk about what the State Department had to offer, she started doing some research, looking into her options, and signing up for email notifications for State internships and job openings.
With her graduate degree in hand, Burks spent time travelling and teaching, working to equip economically disadvantaged youth with language and personal development skills. This led her to Ukraine, where she was teaching in a very small city when she received one of those email alerts from the State Department for a summer internship program. “I applied and interviewed with a number of different offices,” she said. “But, I ended up in the Office of English Language Programs, which is the office I am still in today.”
After accepting the internship offer, Burks had to pack her bags and move from one foreign culture in Ukraine to another in the State Department. She explained, “I came into government with no government background. It’s the unspoken cultures that you have to adjust to and learn how to interpret.”
Despite these challenges, Burks has been able to successfully navigate becoming an accidental govie and thrive in the public sector. She offered three key things to keep in mind for any millennial who finds themselves in a government job:
Build a network. Burks explained that without any prior government experience, she had to build her network within the government from scratch. Networking is absolutely crucial to understanding government culture and for making it, especially if you have no prior government experience. “It’s everything from the workplace, to the people, to how to draft emails—you’re not taught this stuff in college so you have to learn it from the people around you,” she said.
Be eager to learn. Once you begin building your network, you have to be willing to learn from those in it. “It is critical to maintain a teachable spirit and be willing to learn,” Burks said. “If you are the person who acts like they know everything, you will struggle.”
Give back what you learn. It is important to invest in yourself and your own career trajectory but bring your colleagues up with you. “Us millennials are ambitious and we want to get things done and make a difference, but don’t forget your peers and paying it forward to those around you,” she said. Despite competitiveness, don’t forget the value in the help that you received early in your career and give that pack to your peers and the next generation.
Whether or not you see a public-service career in your future, it can never hurt to explore working for the government as a way to pursue your goals. Burks concluded, “Government work is truly what you make it but there is a place for everyone, every skillset and every interest.”
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This post is part of GovLoop’s millennial blog series, First 5.