D.C. trip leads to networking opportunities, career insights for SIA students

SIA students visiting D3 Systems
SIA students visiting the D3 Systems office in Tysons Corner, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. IMAGE: Andrew Gabriel

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Offering an international affairs graduate program at a world-class university in the middle of Pennsylvania provides numerous benefits to students, including a small and close-knit program, access to the resources of a top-tier and comprehensive research university, and the ability to learn from elite faculty outside the noise of the Washington, D.C., policy “bubble.”

At the same time, many international affairs students will look to start their careers in D.C.—and so, with that in mind, the Penn State School of International Affairs (SIA) organizes an annual Career Exposure Trip to the nation’s capital (one of four career trips taken annually) to help students explore career options, gain advice from potential employers, and build their professional network.

Over the course of two days this past October, 35 first-year students took advantage of the opportunity to visit with leading nonprofits, NGOs, think tanks, and private businesses. Included in this year’s agenda were stops at the World Bank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Korea Economic Institute of America, Chemonics, and D3 Systems. In addition, students had the opportunity to learn more about national security careers during a panel discussion with SIA alumni and to network with alumni and other guests at a special reception in Northwest D.C.

“I am grateful to the entire SIA staff for organizing this opportunity,” said first-year student Berenice Beltrán-Maldonado. “Activities like this career trip are very beneficial to us—they help us prepare for our future careers and learn how to become professionals in our field.”

At each stop, students met with current leaders and other employees at the organizations—a wide range of workers that included interns, early-career professionals, experienced human resources specialists, and program directors. With such a diverse group of companies and employees, SIA students gained a broad view of potential career paths. They also absorbed career advice on everything from resumes and cover letters to the value companies place on multilingualism and data analysis.

“I think the key to these trips is that we are not hearing about how great their organizations are, but what our students need to do to work at these organizations,” explained SIA Director Dr. Scott Gartner.

Gartner and SIA’s career services staff accompanied students on the trip to encourage deeper learning and help students connect with how the experience applies to them personally.

“Before starting the program in the fall I didn’t know quantitative analysis was part of the curriculum at SIA, and I didn’t think it was relevant to international affairs,” said Kymbat Nuranova, a first-year student from Kazakhstan. “But after this D.C. trip, I realize how important it is to have quantitative skills and how that can help you land a job.”

SIA students at the World Bank
SIA students in the lobby of the World Bank office in Washington, D.C. IMAGE: Andrew Gabriel

Every student came away from the trip with a different aspect that they found most insightful or beneficial. For Kyle Lucchese, one highlight of the experience was meeting with younger professionals at the organizations, many of whom graduated and entered the job market within the last five years.

“I found it more relatable to meet with younger employees,” Lucchese said. “The people who are working in the same positions you’re interested in can be the most helpful.”

Jordan Grandy appreciated a very specific piece of information: several of the companies mentioned that many human resources offices are now using algorithms to filter out resumes based on keywords. What does that mean for a job applicant? “You have to really specialize your resume to fit each job,” he said.

SIA Alumni Reception
SIA students and alumni networking during the alumni reception in Washington, D.C. IMAGE: Andrew Gabriel

While most of the events over the two-day trip were formal meetings with organizations, the students also had the opportunity to network in a more informal setting during the alumni reception. In addition to SIA alumni—including a First Secretary of the Kazakhstan Embassy—advisory board members (including former ambassadors), faculty, and staff, the group was honored to be joined at the reception by Col. Patrick Duggan, director of cybersecurity at the National Security Council. Many students pointed to the alumni reception, and the networking opportunities it provided, as the most memorable part of the trip.

After a busy two days, students returned to University Park with an expanded career network and deeper insight into Washington, D.C., and the international affairs field.

“The biggest takeaway is that every opportunity at SIA is one that you’ll never get again,” Lucchese said. “You have to take advantage of them and be prepared for what they entail.”