When a co-worker emailed me the application for the Women in Global Policy Seminar, the title caught my eye immediately. I had recently declared my major in International Politics with a concentration in Foreign Policy and Processes, as well as a certificate in Women and Gender Studies. I read the itinerary of the seminar of the year before, and it perfectly paralleled with what I wanted to study. But most importantly, the seminar focused on how different sectors of multiple fields interact with or influence foreign policy. I had a thousand questions about what track I was really interested in: did I still want to work for the government? If so, what of branch? Or possibly the private sector? Or with a non-profit? I was overwhelmed with options. I had a general idea of what I wanted to pursue, but no idea how to apply it in the supposed “real world.”
Being a student in D.C. doesn’t necessarily make this easier to figure this out. I was trying to be a student first: it’s easy to get caught up with classes, friendships, and extracurriculars. Regardless of my location, it was difficult to find a time to research my interests and explore the thousands of professional options that exist. Did I want to focus on advocacy or lobbying for a specific cause I was passionate about? Or did I want to look towards the State Department and explore the field of diplomacy? Or did I want to do hands-on development work? Did I have to pick a path or interest and stick to it? It seemed as if everyone already had, and I was the only one roaming aimlessly.
Next thing I knew, it was May and I was headed to the hotel Sunday night to start the PLEN seminar. I did have a few expectations. Obviously, I hoped to learn something new about my major or the track I wanted to take. I also wanted to really get to know the other attendees from universities throughout the country. Immediately, PLEN began to meet and surpass every expectation I had. In addition to learning about fascinating insider knowledge such as the realities of policy making or the organizational structure of the Hill or Pentagon, the pieces of wisdom we heard are what left a significant impact on me. I categorized the advice I heard into one of two categories: broad or practical.
Practical advice is an action or change I could apply to my life immediately to improve certain skill sets. For example, I had attended a few networking workshops before the PLEN one. Only at the PLEN one did I have a concrete explanation of the proper networking etiquette with multiple examples, as well as tips on how to create an excel database to keep track of my contacts. Some panelists also dove into the importance of certain universal skills that every person should keep in mind when going into a job: know how to write for the environment you’re in, understand your issues forwards and backwards (well enough to explain it succinctly to someone who knows nothing about it) and always have a pitch prepared. The salary negotiation workshop also answered multiple different scenarios of what goes into the job interview process and how to address a variety of situations.
Broad advice is a lot of the time the advice we are used to hearing from parents, grandparents, etc. like “work hard in school!” or “always be kind to everyone you meet because you never know who you could be meeting!” It could be categorized as wisdom more generally applicable to life. The broad advice is then supplemented with concrete examples or stories as to how the advice applies. I heard my favorite piece of broad advice on the first day. One of our incredible speakers broke down exactly how I should narrow down my interests: find what is the most important to me, and where I can have the most impact. At the end of the day, all of these powerful women do have multiple things they are passionate about, but the difference is that they are able to recognize (after much trial and error, they emphasized) that spreading yourself thin helps no one in the end.
The seminar solidified a few things I already knew. One fact was about the role of history when it comes to developing and shaping policy. I loved history and chose to take a few extra history classes to count for my major. My peers made me doubt my decision, however, as they selected more skill-based or diplomacy geared classes. But multiple times throughout the PLEN week, speakers that worked in both the public and private sector emphasized the importance of knowing the history of as many regions as possible. History can help predict or explain the successes or failures of every policy goal. It’s the foundation for global affairs. Another idea that was repeated was the importance of caring for the people in your work environment – whether or not they work with you or for you. If people know you care about them, they will give you everything in terms of their performance. To create this sort of environment, you should always be conscious of diversity. In layman's terms: when you care about one another, you bring out the best of those around you.
In all honesty, the week left me with more questions than answers. I mean this in the best way possible. I had more of an idea of what questions to ask and who to ask them to. I finally came to terms with my greatest uncertainty: not finding this perfect “track” to success. If there is one major take away from the seminar, it’s that the perfect track does not exist. Every single speaker reiterated this in one way or another. Not every job or internship or opportunity they accepted was a clear stepping stone as to where they were meant to be. They might have completely hated one job but picked up some skills that they had no idea would help them along the line. They might have accepted the lower level job rather than the one with the flashier title because they trusted the mentors that saw the potential in them. I could finally accept a truth that was a bit difficult to understand: it’s completely okay to have mentors and people you aspire to be like, but you do not have to take the exact steps or jobs that they did. Treat them as important guides, but always seek out other opportunities and paths that may come along the way. Before the seminar, I had never considered myself interested in the field of international security. Now I’m seriously thinking about taking a military strategies class to try to build a foundational knowledge of our country’s national defense.
On the last day of the seminar, one panel raved about their obsession with essential oils. D.C.’s best kept secret is apparently dabbing a little bit of lemon oil on your wrist like perfume. It works wonders, they said, to reinvigorate you on a busy day. As we laughed along with them, the purpose of PLEN finally hit me. All week, I had been incredibly in awe and slightly intimidated by the powerful women we were meeting, but I soon realized they had been exactly in my shoes before. They gave me the actual confidence to believe that I can follow in their footsteps. I don’t have to go to a perfect university, or pick the perfect internship, or network flawlessly, or have a set “path” in order to grow as an individual and make an impact in the world. It’s okay to not have it figured out because there is not a clear-cut track to success.
My next steps? Seek out mentors in different places. Meet people for coffee. Keep an open mind. Create a networking database. Continue my friendships and relationships with the amazing PLEN alumnae and speakers I spent the week with. Ask more questions. And bulk order essential oils, ASAP.