Stories from Our Community

Alumni Mentor Program brings GPS toolkit to the East Coast

UC San Diego and GPS alumni are paired with current students who are exploring policy and public service during their summer internship in Washington, D.C.

July 31, 2018 | By Rachel Hommel | GPS News

Having a great mentor is invaluable. This summer, students at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS) will get the opportunity to learn one-on-one what it takes to make it in our Nation’s capital.

“Washington is a big place, it’s easy to get lost in the professional world so it’s incredibly useful to have someone that one can look to for help and guidance,” said Drew Harker ‘79. “There is no substitute for that kind of hands-on experience and meeting people who five years down the road can be in position to help you.”

Spearheaded by UC San Diego alumnus Drew Harker ’79, the program was inspired by his time in Washington, interning both on Capitol Hill and at the U.S. Department of State. Thanks to the help of his own mentor at the State Department, he landed his first job with the U.S. Senate from 1981 to 1986, in the Armed Services Committee. Hoping to build community and camaraderie, this summer 12 GPS students traveled to Washington to build their network, research interests and career objectives.

“There are not very many schools that have this kind of mentorship program. I really hand it to GPS to be out in front,” said Harker. “Washington changed my life. The GPS interns are showing a lot of initiative and I don’t doubt they will be changemakers.”

Alumni Mentors

Mentor: Kristofor Erickson ‘07, Deputy Staff Director, U.S House of Representative Committee on Financial Services

Mentee: Justin Lesniak, Master of International Affairs 2019 candidate

Internship: U.S. Department of Treasury, Western Hemisphere Unit of International Affairs Office

Growing up fascinated with history and social sciences, Lesniak was inspired by his mom’s role as an IRS agent under the Treasury Department.  Working at the World Bank for two and a half years before coming to GPS, he discovered his love for Washington. Hoping to learn more about how the U.S. government and the policymaking process works, he was eager to return and start his internship.

“I think I keep finding my way back because its perhaps the one city where all the things we focus on at GPS – economics, research, politics, policy and international affairs – all come together,” said Lesniak. “Specifically, concepts from accounting and finance, the quantitative methods series and international economics have been instrumental in my work for the Treasury Department."

GPS alumnus Kristofor Erickson ‘07 also remembers these courses, which he believes builds the necessary skills to work on the Hill, empowering students to become experts in their respective fields. And, Lesniak is grateful for the pairing, helping him see the similarities and differences between his internship in the executive branch and working on Capitol Hill in Congress.

“For me the best part of having a mentor is just simply having the ability to talk to someone who knows the city and is well connected,” said Lesniak. “This allows me to learn from their work experiences and perspectives on the policymaking process, something I am very appreciative of.”

Inspired by his own time on campus, Erickson applauds the efforts of UC San Diego and his GPS network for guiding him along the way. After a job loss on Capitol Hill early in his career, Erickson learned the hard lesson of dealing with life’s uncertainty, hoping he can instill in Lesniak a deeper confidence in his own hard-earned skills.

“The stress of life’s uncertainty can be debilitating, but you have a community that wants to help you,” said Erickson. “By remembering that and focusing on the small things you can do in those moments, slowly the anxieties about the future ease.”

Alumni Mentors

Mentor: Larke Williams ‘03, Foreign Affairs Office, U.S. Department of State

Mentee: Isabelle Heilman, Master of Public Policy 2019 candidate

Internship: U.S. State Department, Bureau of Oceans, Environment, and Scientific Affairs

With an interest in studying climate change policy, Isabelle Heilman could not think of a better match, joining forces with Larke Williams ‘03 who spent over six years with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Inspired by Larke’s specializations in environmental policy, air and climate regulations and environmental justice, Heilman was eager to pair up with her, in particular, someone who could act as a model for females working in the policy field.

“Larke is incredibly honest about her career progression and how she advocates for herself,” said Heilman. “As a young woman starting my career, it can be daunting to have the crucial conversations that will advance my career, but Larke's advice gives me more confidence in myself and my abilities for when I start my career after graduation.”

Through discussion, guidance and practice, Larke hopes to foster an awareness of how young women can set themselves up for success by developing a professional demeanor that is assertive and confident. Helping Heilman grow her organizational acumen, Larke is confident she will be a leader in the workplace.

“I wanted to participate in the mentorship program since it is a great opportunity to foster leadership in the rising generation of policy leaders,” said Larke. “As future policymakers, young professionals need to understand the importance of bringing together diverse groups of stakeholders and helping them reach agreement on common goals.”

For any students heading to Washington, Heilman offers a bit of advice to her fellow GPS cohort, a city she has grown immensely fond of despite the summer humidity.

“I've found that people are generally open to meeting for coffee to chat about their career and give you advice,” said Heilman. “Get over the cold emailing awkwardness early and meet as many people as you can!”

Alumni Mentors

Mentor: Mike Beard ‘03, Executive Director, United Nations Foundation Advocacy and Global Health Director for the Better World Campaign (BWC)

Mentee: Valeria Buelna Sainz, Master of Public Policy 2019

Internship: Organization of American States, Department Against Transnational Organized Crime

Sharing a passion for advocacy, Valeria Buelna Sainz came to Washington with an interest in state capacity and how it might lead to population displacement and the refugee crises. Inspired by GPS classes such as “Drug and Violence in Latin America,” she felt prepared to take on the challenges of her internship at the Organization of American States.

“My time at GPS has been very helpful at contextualizing the research I am doing during my internship,” said Buelna Sainz. “I came to Washington because I believe it is a place for me to develop my areas of expertise and serve as a guide for the next step in my career.”

Offering an inside look into the grind of policy and politics, Mike Beard has enjoyed helping Buelna Sainz develop her network and solidify her career goals post-graduation. With all the twists and turns of his own life experience in advocacy work, he has encouraged her to remain positive in the face of adversity and keep moving forward.

“Working in service of people who will probably never know you are working for them, is empowering,” said Beard. “It has been 15 years since I graduated from UC San Diego and I wanted to help fellow Tritons make a difference in Washington. I have absolutely loved getting to know Valeria. She is inspiring and will be a real asset to any NGO who hires her.”

Unlike other East Coast policy schools, Beard stresses the importance of the GPS education, offering employers a candidate with a unique and broad array of experiences. Acting as both a friend and mentor, Buelna Sainz could not be more appreciative of this experience.

“When I applied, I was looking for an insider, someone who knew the clockwork of the city better than me,” said Buelna Sainz. “When I met Mike, I found and amazing insider with years of experience. I think the best part about the mentorship program is that by the end of it you have a friend for life.”