Alumni Share: Leveraging your Boren experience

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Shabnam:   Welcome to the Boren Around the World podcast, a podcast by the National Security Education Program for Boren awardees, language lovers and public service enthusiasts. In today's episode, we will be speaking with Joshua Rand-Castillo. Joshua is a 2010 China scholarship recipient, he has experience in National Security from active-duty Army, Army National Guard, and International Development within the U.S agency for International Development, and the Defense Security Cooperation agency. In 2017 he was an honorable mention for the Howard Baker Jr. Awards. The same year he was also selected for the Boren mentorship program and has been a mentor every year since. Thank you very much for joining us today Joshua!

Joshua:       Thank you very much for having me, I really appreciate it.

Shabnam:   Absolutely! We are rather excited to hear about your experiences, could you talk a little bit about your career in the Army and how you transitioned to your current work in International Development USAID and DSCA?

Joshua:       Yeah, so my Army career started way back in 2001 before September 11th and all the things that are happening now, and it ended in 2014, the entire time I was a combat infantryman, so I had been to Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000’s. Much of my experience there was going out looking for bad guys, and as well as being developed as a leader and teaching younger soldiers how to lead and do their job. Towards the end, I end up becoming more of a mentor towards everybody, and trying how to complete paperwork, how to be a leader, how to lead from the front, and explain why you're doing things, instead of just telling people why you’re doing things, and as I was getting towards the end of my time in the Army, I made a little pit stop at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Phoenix Arizona, and that's really where I started to get an interest in International Development and helping people and doing good, which was a complete 180 from my previous career. I kind of liked that, changing career fields, completely opposite from each other.

What I started seeing through the International Development lens was kind of – it felt to good help these people, felt good to build these communities, to get a sense of progress and forwardness. I ended up looking for jobs within U.S. agency for International Development, was there for a couple years as a program assistant an admin management officer, basically the same type of role, managing the office and making sure everybody is good to go for deployments, all the technical experts had the function and capability to do their job without being interrupted by mundane tasks like setting up accounts with a computer systems, looking for trainings to do to supplement their knowledge. I was the background guy making sure everything was running smooth so the technical experts could focus fully on their jobs.

Towards the end of my time at USAID, I ended up finding a similar over at the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, and it was a very similar atmosphere. Working with technical experts with 20, 30, 40 years of experience in their field and just doing all the behind-the-scenes operations, but I end up getting more so into the program management side, and less of the assistant side. Learning how to develop streamlined processes to run more efficiently and effectively, and that s still part of what I’m doing in the office today.

Shabnam:   Was there something specific that inspired this shift.

Joshua:       What really inspired it was working at the VA hospital, and there's one specific instance where I was helping somebody that was really irritated with the whole process, the bureaucracy, and just frustrated overall. I took it upon myself to help and assist them through some of the processes that I knew and eventually they managed to be successful in what they were trying to do, and that's when it occurred to me that helping people felt good, felt great. I feel like I could do something bigger, better, somewhere else helping more people instead of one person at a time. That was what inspired my shift to go to International Development.

Shabnam:   What does your current work entail? Could you clarify which positions you were a federal employee in, and which one you were a contractor for?

Joshua:       At USAID I was a federal employee, which was interesting because I had a lot of abilities to do tasks independently and make sure they were completed with my own judgment and my own progress and very little supervisory approval, and a lot of that was what I mentioned before, setting up accounts, making sure training with coordinating, coordinated doing some security within the organization, setting up meetings outside the organization, within the organization between different offices, making sure things are running smoothly overall. A lot of that was some human resources work, office management work, security-related work, and as a government employee, a federal employee, I had the ability to make sure things ran smoothly on my own accord, now moving over to Defense Security Cooperation Agency, I moved over as a contractor for the DOD, and I lost all that ability to make decisions, to make things happen. What I end up having to develop and rely on was a lot of interpersonal skills and communication. Getting right to the point, explaining how I can make this process more efficient to the program, and to the program management and then getting a review and approval. There was a lot more finesse from us to get things done, but it also developed my interpersonal communication skills, and my thought process developed as well because I had to start thinking about how what I was doing was affecting everybody else within the organization, and how my project could also make everybody else's life easier. Those are the two differences I think between being a federal employee and being a contractor to the federal government.

Shabnam:   Are there similarities or differences that you noticed between DOD and USAID work culture?

Joshua:       Oh yeah, I’ll start with the similarities across the board between the two, I don’t think I’ve seen a difference between the bureaucracy. They’re both juggernauts, there’s tons of forms and tons of steps that have to happen before anything gets approved, before one supervisor passes it to another supervisor to pass it to the senior executive board for approval, and anything that comes down the chain is usually the same at both places. The difference that I see between USAID and DoD, from the DoD perspective, their goal is to win America's wars, they’re really focused on the combat, fighting, the hard action that you see in newspapers and news articles and stories and pictures. They’re not so much focused on behind-the-scenes soft power, how to communicate with foreign military leadership, on the back side that has been developing for decades. USAID are focused on the soft power, and you don't really hear about them because a lot of what they do is at the community level, it’s empowering communities. It takes a lot more empathy to get things done at USAID and with foreign partners, whereas DoD is more “here’s my checkbook, let's write a check for that, buy it and get it out of the way” and move onto the next project, so the big differences are soft power versus hard power with the two of them. To understand you have to work in each one for a few years to really grasp how they are different.

Shabnam:   How have you transitioned between these two cultures?

Joshua:       Oh so that's a tough one. So, I can from the military where everything is aggressive, my job was aggressive, always being aggressive, demanding you're just straightforward. Going from being an infantryman in the Army, to now working in International Development, that was a struggle. In the international world you're not always told straight up front what somebody means, they may say something, and it may mean something completely different, whereas coming from the infantry, you said what you mean right up front, so those nuances were such a struggle. I would stay out of my first year and a half, I was trying to pick up on those nuances, understanding what they really meant by their actions, and by their words was a challenge. Then going back to DoD, from being in USAID and going back to DoD, it was interesting because I was entering the world again where you are direct, but then again, I was entering the international part of DoD, so most of the folks I was working with were foreign area officers, they had years of experience working with international counterparts. They were used to also not necessarily saying up front what they meant. Getting used to that international side language with DoD culture was my struggle again, like “oh that guy is telling me something, and I know from my DoD background that that’s what he means” and then I would realize later what he was really talking about. So, it was interesting, that transition, back and forth, back and forth.

Shabnam:   What would you say are some effective steps someone could take to pursue a career in International Development?

Joshua:       So what I’ve learned is between USAID and Department of Defense, your education is not necessarily the thing that qualifies you or disqualifies you from the role. More so they want to see what type of actual experience you have, not necessarily in that industry, but where you have that experience and how you use that experience. So, you could theoretically be an electrical engineer, and they’ll grab you just because you’re an electrical engineer, because they need to fill that role within a country, or you can be a political science person, and if you went from your bachelor's degree or master’s or Ph.D., they may not necessarily pick you up because you may not fill that role at that time. On the flip side of that, you could also be an electrical engineer with 20 years of experience and fit that perfectly, but if your only experience was staying in private industry, International Development may not grab you because you may not have that understanding of how to interact within the field of International Development, how about language works, and how to actually get processes done. You could also be the political science person who’s straight out of college, but you intern with to economics or FHI360, or you intern with USAID or you can intern with DoD, or you had part-time jobs working - blogging on International Development, or like with NSEP, you went overseas for a year, you learn the culture, you interact with the people, and they see you at you went to like Mozambique, or you went to China, and you stayed in Xin Jiang or you went to Indonesia, and they’re like “oh man this person has very little education and work experience, but they have all this actual practical real-world experience.” So, I would look at getting that practical real-world experience to help develop your resume, to get in the international development sector. I've noticed that experience helps you get into some of the international programs at Yale, John Hopkins, Washington, George Washington University up here and DC

Shabnam:   What advice would you give to someone who is interested in International Development as a career with the federal government more broadly, but doesn't know exactly where they may fit in, or how to get their foot in the door?

Joshua:       I would start telling those that are interesting and International Development to look at podcasts, organizations that focus on development that offer webinars like CSIS, CNAS, Brookings Institute, because what they have are government or former government employees speaking about their personal experience in the industry so that can give you a good basic “okay I Got 5 minutes on the bus” or “I waiting for a class to start” or “I’m on a flight somewhere.” I would also recommend that they start looking for companies that do international development as an implementing partner for USAID or any of these foreign partners from England or Japan or Denmark, and contacting the company's and doi9ng informational interviews, asking like “hey what do you do? Can you tell me about this, tell me about that?” or if you see some of the local companies around the U.S that are mostly focused in the Washington DC area, give them a call and ask thing s like “how you like your job? Do you have any travel, any opportunities to travel?” Also, looking at the NSEP website to see who does what within the government, or looking at the Boren board and trying to attend some of the events, virtually or otherwise, to see about connecting to do informational interviews, and that can also help focus you on getting experience, what practical real-world experience in foreign countries you will need to reach your goal.

Shabnam:   Thank you so much Joshua. I also wanted to transition a little bit into how to explain the Boren to prospective employers? You've mentioned you had experience with this, so I just wanted to talk a little bit about how have you discussed the Boren experience to those unfamiliar to the program and how have you reached out to employers and marketed your hiring authorities?

Joshua:       Okay. So, this goes back to my time at U.S agency for International Development. I actually went to an OPM sponsored hiring event for managers, and how to teach managers to hire the best qualified candidate using different authorities. So, we got to a section where we were talking about Schedule A hiring authorities and education hiring authorities, and veteran hiring authorities, but when they got to the part where they mention education, the one name that came up was the Fulbright scholarship. I was like “hey, wait a second, what about the NSEP scholarship? Only Fulbright matters?” So, I asked them a question, I asked them to tell me how I could look at NSEP and Fulbright’s in the same category, and they had zero understanding. I gave - I sent them the authorities from the NSEP page that explain where NSEP fell under, and they still couldn’t give me an answer. I ended up having to talk to the OPM people and explaining to them like what a Boren scholar and what a Boren fellow are actually doing overseas, and what they could potentially do within the federal government, and how that compares to the Fulbright.

So what I started doing when I interacted with employers, either looking for a job or just reaching out to see what the company did, or interacting with companies at other events throughout the nation was I started asking them like “hey do you know what the Fulbright scholarship is?” and they would get all excited, talk about the state department and the glory days, being a foreign service officer, and I would say “well here’s what the NSEP scholarship is” and what being a Boren scholar and fellow means. We do basically the exact same thing, go overseas, learn a language, learn the culture, interact, absorb as much as you can, and then you come back, and you work for the federal government and that's almost the exact same thing as a Fulbright, but we’re the DoD version of that. Once you make that comparison to people that don't know, it kind of clicks like “oh, I have a great understanding of that Fulbright program at the state department, everybody wants it” and I say “yeah, NSEP is the same way, I think less than 10% of the people that apply win it, just like the Fulbright program” so I'm always out there, talking to everybody I can that will listen to me, telling them what the NSEP program is what David L Boren scholars do, and follow through, just to try and get some of that - if you run into these people, consider them the DoD counterpart to the Fulbright, and I think it sticks with a lot of people.

Shabnam:   Do you typically have these conversations with hiring managers?

Joshua:       I do yeah. Those are the groups of people that I really focus on, all the hiring managers and the business owners, those that really have that final say. I also try it reached out to senior Leaders withing agencies, so they have a picture developing, and at least, you know, if they don’t remember a word I said, they have a positive feeling when they hear Boren scholar or Boren fellow.

Shabnam:   And were you able to obtain your current positions by using these hiring authorities?

Joshua:       I was not able to personally, but at USAID I met a few folks that got their positions using the hiring authorities as a Boren scholar, excuse me, a fellow, and the same at DSCA. One of the ladies that works there got her position because she was a Boren fellow as well and used the authority.

Shabnam:   Thank you so much Joshua. The last thing that I wanted to talk about was also your experience in the Boren mentorship program. You were a Boren mentor for several years, and as a Boren mentor you have supported several awardees in the past. What insights have you gleaned from your mentor-mentee relationship in terms of how to make the most of the 6-month program?

Joshua:       So, this program is super short, and it sticks two strangers together that don't know each other, that have a short amount of time to develop a relationship. I usually go into it not wanting to tell the other person what to do, or how to do it, or exerting my influence on them. I would suggest going into the program with an end result that you're looking for, and then when you meet during that first month, develop that rapport, have conversations about your resume, about your jobs, about work life, about personal life, school background, and as you're having those conversations, take that first month to really develop a plan on that end result. Sometimes that end result that you go into mentorship program with may change. You may realize that this person has such expertise, they could help me with getting into graduate school, or a new job or we can just focus on my resume, or they, like we mentioned earlier they can tell me - or we could discuss how to reach out to folks, and how have the conversations about explaining the importance of the Boren scholar or fellow program to employers during the interview process. Go in positive and ready to work. If you’re willing to work, you will have a great experience, you’re going to come out a lot further ahead than you imagined you would when you were going in.

Shabnam:   Do you have any final thoughts or insights you'd like to share with our listeners?

Joshua:       If you get the opportunity to talk about the program, talk about the program with anybody and everybody and how it positively influenced who you are and how you got there. Eventually you're going to run into a Boren scholar fellow later down the road, and you’ll be able to help them, or you're going to run into hiring managers that you work with that don't know who they are. The more we talk about it with people that don't know, the more it gets out there, the more program managers, business owners, executives, are willing to hire people that have a Boren fellow or scholar background.

Shabnam:   Thank you so much Joshua.

Joshua:       Thank you very much, I appreciate it.

Shabnam:   You’ve been listening to the Boren around the world podcast. If you haven't yet, go to Spotify to subscribe, rate and view this podcast. If you're interested in participating in the podcast, email [email protected] with “Boren Podcast” in your subject line. Join me soon for another episode. Thank you for listening!

In this episode, our host, Program Officer Shabnam Ahmed, will connect with Mr. Joshua-Rand Castillo a former Boren scholar to China will discuss his experience transitioning from Active Duty Military to the field of International Development. We will also discuss perspectives on transitioning between sectors within federal government, how best to leverage your Boren experience and hiring authorities to hiring officials.