Many students in international majors or minors start with an aspiration to be State Department diplomats or USAID workers. However, statistics reveal that, after they graduate, most of these students choose different paths. This article explores seven Kennedy Center graduates who have moved in unexpected directions while still relying heavily on their international relations background. Though their end goals have changed, these alumni didn’t dramatically overhaul their dreams; rather, they adapted them as unanticipated opportunities emerged.
Go Ahead and Dream: Johnny Harris
Major: international relations
Career: videographer at Vox
Johnny Harris’s story to Vox, a popular news agency based out of Washington, DC, illustrates the often-convoluted path of a dreamer.
When Harris initially began at BYU, he dabbled in a few different programs, such as film and jazz, but he ultimately became an international relations major after serving a mission in Mexico. Although he knew he wanted to travel, meet new people, make videos, and create dynamic graphics, a job that combined all of those interests didn’t, to his knowledge, exist.
After graduating in 2013, he moved out to Washington, DC, and began working at a restaurant. Eventually, he landed a gig at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), where he created dynamic international relations media content. However, CSIS was more of a stepping stone than the end goal.
“There is space in DC where international affairs and high-quality media arts is coming together, and I didn’t even know it existed,” Harris said. “Even though I did not blossom at CSIS, that is where I cut my teeth and found my voice and my brand: I am an international affairs guy who does motion graphics.”
Harris eventually applied to the American University and, as a result of his unique love for both international relations and videography, received a full scholarship to earn his master’s degree in media arts.
While at AU, Harris applied to Vox and was rejected, but instead of assuming defeat, he persisted. “I spent the Thanksgiving holiday at my in-laws’ house in Florida. When everyone went to bed, I would sneak out and make a video,” Harris explained. “[I created] a big animated video résumé. My now-boss watched it, and that was how I got the job. . . . I think they admired the persistence.”
At that time, Vox was the Wild West in many respects because the company was so new. Harris felt like he was left to create his own adventure. So he asked his boss if he could film a documentary on Cuba. The project resulted in Vox Docs and then the current Vox Borders, a series that documents stories from borders across the globe in an effort to “humanize the people and communities divided by lines on a map,” said Harris.
In advising students about how to get their dream job, Harris said: “You have to talk to people. . . . You as the student need to be active and assertive. . . . You need to question yourself, what it is you want to do, and then really investigate whether that exists in the real world.”
Patiently Collect Experience: Michael Monroe
Minors: international development, political science
Career: consultant at Booz Allen
Michael Monroe knew by the end of his undergraduate studies that he wanted to influence public policy, help the government provide public goods more efficiently, and encourage economic development. The elusive part was the how-to.
With a major in economics, he considered working for a think tank, at a Department of State post, or in an academic setting. But it wasn’t until Monroe started a master’s degree at the London School of Economics that he seriously thought about a career in public consulting. Eventually, Monroe became a consultant with Booz Allen, where he works with organizations such as the Department of Defense and Homeland Security, Intel, NASA, and the IRS.
“I provide management consulting to government executives to help them make data-driven decisions, and then I help design and implement better technology to enable teams to analyze, visualize, and interact with their data,” Monroe said.
Monroe’s background in international relations has proved to be a necessity in his work. “Influencing change within public sector institutions requires an understanding of incentives, politics, economics, data analysis, and rhetoric,” he explained. “My experiences in the Kennedy Center helped me to better understand all of these concepts and hone my ability to debate, negotiate, and influence.”
Additionally, Monroe emphasized that learning to be compelling and persuasive—whether in high-stakes or one-on-one meetings or when speaking in front of a large audience—has been vital for his success. He also discovered that becoming an early adopter of new technologies and paradigms was essential to keeping his skills relevant.
He shared some advice he had received from Noelani Porter, a former Kennedy Center advisor. “Buck up and dive right into the job market. Don’t go right off to grad school; jump into the job market first. Get your feet wet. Grad school will always be there as a reset button. Remember that you’ll change careers and jobs several times,” Monroe said.
Monroe also stated that sometimes it makes more sense to hone your skills in the private sector and then move into the public sector down the road. He said, “Maybe reaching that perfect think tank or diplomatic post will require some patience and collecting a variety of experiences to get you there.”
Embrace the Career Pivot: Rebecca Wiseman
Major: international relations
Career: technical recruiter at Qualtrics
When Rebecca Wiseman was in her undergrad years, she envisioned working in academia and traveling to colleges and high schools across the United States to increase awareness of the European Union (EU) and European studies. She ultimately wanted to work with the EU either as a diplomat, as an advisor, or in an academic role.
Fast forward to the present, and Wiseman is in a very different place—working in tech at Qualtrics.
“My mom is a software engineer, and I always thought tech jobs were reserved for people that enjoyed math or coding,” Wiseman said. “I was never really good at either, so I didn’t consider going into tech until a friend referred me to Qualtrics.”
Wiseman’s primary role at Qualtrics is to find and hire software developers. She is also involved in other hiring projects, such as revamping the Qualtrics intern program and working with the campus recruiting team.
While Wiseman has done a career pivot, she states that her time at the Kennedy Center has been fundamental in helping her recognize what skills she has and how she can apply them in her current role. Her consequent advice is to “learn what environment you thrive working in and what natural skills you bring to the table, and then find a job—in any industry—that aligns with that environment and skill set.”
Several of those skills that Wiseman has found most valuable are the ability to debate and negotiate. “Working at a startup company means there are a lot of undefined processes and all ideas are welcome—both good and bad,” she explained. “I often need to debate with my peers and managers the pros and cons of the options laid before us.” Wiseman chalks up her negotiating skills to her experiences in both Model United Nations and Model European Union.
Wiseman may not be educating students about the EU, but she has learned a few things that have allowed her to embrace her new path. “You may be surprised just how many career paths open up when you prioritize the way a company feels to you rather than worrying about a specific industry, organization, or title,” she said. “I came to find the industry of my job matters much less to me than the environment and people of my career.”
Push Your Passion: Madeleine Gleave
Major: Economics, political science
Minor: international development
Career: policy and advocacy officer at the International Rescue Committee
Although Madeleine Gleave’s job with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) is typical of someone who graduated with an international development minor, Gleave’s responsibilities have often dealt with quantitative data.
“I’ve always been really drawn to the power of data and technology for development and humanitarian work. Some of my earliest school projects at BYU were a design for an online portal to coordinate disaster relief efforts after the earthquake in Haiti and a website built off of Google Maps to show the locations of various local NGO projects across Uganda,” Gleave explained.
She has always wanted to work in the humanitarian and development field from high school, and soon after coming to BYU quickly took advantage of the research opportunities available. Gleave said, “I was involved in Model United Nations and got particularly interested in issues of human trafficking, refugees, and the Millennium Development Goals.” She also worked as a research assistant for the AirData project and then in the Political Economy and Development Lab.
After graduating from BYU, Gleave worked at the Center for Global Development before attending Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon University. While there she came to understand more about predictive modeling, big data computing, and artificial intelligence. Yet even with all of her data analytic skill, implementing them and getting results is still an uphill battle.
“Making data and technology accessible and relevant is key,” Gleave said. “One of my greatest passions is creating and communicating through data visualizations, to help everyone—policymakers and the public alike—understand why data-driven policies are so important.”
Using her data analytic skills, Gleave produced a data visualization for a blogpost titled “Seven Graphics That Explain Energy and Poverty,” which was shared more than 850 times on Facebook and 3,000 times on Twitter.
Gleave credits her mentors and her experiences as a research assistant as critical catalysts for her success. Consequently, she advised, “Take advantage of the two things at BYU: research and faculty mentorship.” Gleave worked nearly three years for Dan Nielson in the Political Science Department and traveled with him to Uganda twice. “I know there are many other faculty like him across the university who go above and beyond for their students,” she said.
See Rejection as Redirection: Tom Torgerson
Major: international studies
Minor: Latin American studies
Career: senior vice president at DBRS
Tom Torgerson planned to major in accounting, but after serving a mission in Argentina, he changed his approach. “Latin America piqued my interest in international affairs and economics,” Torgerson said.
Torgerson also knew he wanted to make a difference, which also drew him to careers in international affairs and public service, specifically economic analysis. So he attended graduate school at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy and subsequently interned with the Office of International Affairs at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
He eventually spent ten years with the Department of the Treasury before moving to DBRS, an independent and privately held credit-ratings agency.
At his current job, Torgerson does a lot of writing and methodological research. He also develops data platforms, models, and analytical tools for DBRS. “I am the lead analyst on a few specific countries, including Argentina, so I keep tabs on major developments relating to those countries—economics, public finance, and politics,” Torgerson explained. “Ultimately, my job is to help make sure we provide the most accurate credit ratings possible on the countries we cover.”
Torgerson’s background in international relations has helped him understand how countries interact with each other economically, financially, and strategically, and according to Torgerson, that has been “absolutely essential” to his career.
Moreover, mentors and quantitative skills were key in putting Torgerson on his current path. “First, good mentors are worth their weight in gold. A few of my BYU and UCSD professors played that role,” he said. “Second, quantitative skills—including a knowledge of accounting, econometrics, statistics, and my irrational fondness for spreadsheets—have seemed to give me an edge in many situations, either when seeking a new position or simply performing well in the one that I have.”
Torgerson also stressed the importance of seeing failure in the right light. He said, “I believe I experienced my own share of rejections and disappointments in searching for the right job and career. At the time, they were very hard to get over. However, looking back I can see that I wasn’t really prepared for those positions anyway, and I later found something else that was a much better fit for me. I had to learn to look at rejection as redirection.”
Learn to Communicate Well: Taryn Davis
Career: project manager and senior associate at Development Gateway
After an internship in the Dominican Republic through the Kennedy Center, Taryn Davis became fascinated with the idea of a career in international relations—something she had not seriously considered before.
“I knew I wanted to do nonprofit work and liked the idea of doing international travel, but I did not know much about the international development world at the time,” she explained.
Davis is currently a project manner and a senior associate at Development Gateway, a company that provides global advisory services and technology solutions to make development data easier to gather, access, use, and understand. “I work on technology programs that are focused around tracking, managing, and utilizing development data. The main program I work with is an aid management platform, which entails working with administrative offices in different countries—in Malawi, for example—to help them enter their country’s data into our systems,” she said.
Davis uses both quantitative and qualitative skills on a day-to-day basis while working with governments, NGOs, or multilateral and bilateral donors. A lot of her work involves utilizing “softer skills,” such as figuring out how to get a hold of colleagues in other countries. “How to get your colleague in Tanzania to respond to your email can be hard to do. You have to figuring out what is important to them,” she said.
Davis also noted that getting the right numbers or results from the data is only the first step to success: “Without a knowledge of how to apply the results, the numbers don’t matter,” she said. “I am not a developer; I don’t write code or anything. This has been a difficult learning curve, but understanding how to communicate with the organizations I work with, as well as knowing how to use and understand data I collect, has been critical,” Davis said.
Davis advises doing a lot of internships and talking to people of all walks of life. And in order to get what you want, she says that taking risks is a part of the game.
Look Beyond the Money and Prestige: Michael Gray
Major: Middle East studies/Arabic
Career: founder at IF Ventures and head of products at COO Pula
It is your ability to hustle and your passion—not your grades—that are indicators of future success, said Michael Gray.“I had average grades,” he said. “However, I was an excellent researcher, people leader, planner, and well spoken.” With a lot of hard work, Gray leveraged these abilities, and with the help of his professors, he received a Fulbright Scholarship to assess the impact of technology on Arab youth in Kuwait.
But when Gray got to Kuwait, his path became clouded. Initially he had hoped to settle into a career as an ambassador or to work within the State Department. Instead he was taken aback by the individuals he dealt with on a day-to-day basis.
“I was exposed to Embassy life, human rights violations, and the impact of very wealthy Arabs, which was such a different culture than the Levant Arabs,” Gray explained. “After dealing with many government leaders that were egocentric due to strong cultural traditions, I grew less interested in spending time with such people.”
As Gray began to contemplate different career options, he realized he needed more of a creative, entrepreneurial, and people-focused job.
“I shifted my international relations end goal from a diplomacy route—which I believe opens doors in emerging markets, improves policies, and prevents wars—to the private sector development route,” Gray said. “This route . . . scales social impact using economic principles, business innovations, and financially sustainable models [reliant on] good government regulation and business friendly policies.”
Gray went on to found IF Ventures, a move that has allowed him to combine all of his various consulting work and skills under one umbrella. In the process, he has recognized that his international relations degree often gave him an edge.
“I find I actually have more business acumen than those without an international relations background and can see practical solutions,” Gray said. “For all I’ve done in my career, I could have easily earned a lot more money in a straight corporate or cushy government role, but in taking the risks I have to work with startups and development, I have found much greater rewards money could not buy.”