The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

Dartmouth Students and Alumni Panelists Engage in Conversations on Working in the Nonprofit Sector

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In a July 27th, 2020 Careers for the Public Good panel hosted by the Rockefeller Center, Dartmouth alumni based around the world gathered virtually to discuss and reflect upon their careers in the nonprofit sector with current students. Panelists included Brian Freeman ’11, an Associate/Scientist in the Social and Economic Policy Division of Abt Associates; Josh Koenig '16, a Program Officer for the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s North America and the Caribbean TrustLaw program; Farah Salam ’17, a community activist and public health professional currently serving as Community Health and Well-Being Coordinator at the Arab-American Family Support Center; and Derek Summerville ’11, the Shared Services Director for the YMCA’s Youth and Government program in Washington, DC.

Each panelist gave a brief overview of their interests and career paths during and following their time at Dartmouth before answering audience questions. Conversations ranged from starting a career in the nonprofit sector, to understanding the types of work involved in the field, to advice to current students interested in getting involved in their communities during their time in college.

Freeman, who began as an intern at the US Department of Education and spent time at Rocky’s Policy Research Shop as an undergraduate before starting at Abt Associates after graduation, works primarily to evaluate social programs for federal clients such as the National Science Foundation, the Department of Education, and the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. Having gained experience researching in a variety of fields, from early childhood education to national service, while at Abt Associates, Freeman emphasized the benefits of working for a few years and exploring a wide range of interests prior to pursuing a graduate degree that may serve well in the nonprofit sector. As a recipient of a Master’s Degree in Education Policy and Management himself, Freeman noted that “generally… it’s nice to have a couple years of work experience – doing something, talking to people who have worked in that industry, who have different ideas on what graduate programs make sense – …that can spark a reappraisal of what graduate programs make sense.”

Meanwhile, Koenig, whose work with TrustLaw partners nonprofits and social enterprises with law firms for pro bono work that maximizes the work and impact of nonprofits, emphasized the challenge of striking a balance between dedication to mission-driven work and personal well-being while starting out in the nonprofit sector. “It can also be hard to establish the boundaries between the time that you spend working and your personal work,” Koenig noted, citing his desire and passion for serving as many people as possible during his time at the Chicago Lawyers Committee. As a result, Koenig encouraged current students to “recognize that you will be the most effective as an advocate when there is a balance, where you’re able to rest and recharge from your work.” Koenig’s search for balance not only led him to think more about doing his own job as effectively as possible, but also inspired him to further the mission of his organization through collaboration with his colleagues. “Don’t put the weight of the entire organization on your own shoulders,” Koenig advised; “you have a team, you can lean on each other and do that work together.”

Additionally, having gathered a wide range of experiences in service work, Salam, a graduate of Dartmouth’s MALS program at the Guarini School for Graduate Studies, highlighted the importance of embracing a plethora of experiences in the service field to strengthen skill sets while remaining involved in the community. While she now spends her time at the Arab-American Family Support Center ensuring health care access for Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian communities and advocating on their behalf at the city and state level, Salam also emphasized that her work in service began in middle school, and remained an important part of her life into college. During her time as a graduate student at Dartmouth, Salam came to realize that “even though I was in a completely new community, I didn’t know anyone… I realized that I did need to continue doing service to feel fulfilled,” and found herself spending time connecting with the greater Upper Valley in order to understand and help address the needs of the community. Furthermore, Salam emphasized the importance of every experience, no matter how small; the advocacy skills she now depends on in her current work stemmed, for example, from her role as a medical advocate for her own grandmother while she was ill, as she could not speak English. At the time, Salam noted, “my employers were impressed that I could do medical advocacy without a degree in social work,” and the skills she developed while assisting her grandmother allowed her to advocate on behalf of refugees facing the same needs and obstacles.

In advice to current students interested in pursuing nonprofit work, Summerville emphasized the importance of patience and flexibility as qualities key to effecting the most change possible. Having worked continuously with the YMCA’s Government Relations team to ensure that the YMCA is getting adequate support from the federal government for its essential programming, Summerville noted that the nonprofit sector, for all the admiration it receives in the public eye, can be often treated as a “sandbox.” This, coupled with the fact that the nonprofit sector is one that may not respond “as quickly” due to the web of historical institutions and on-the-ground organizations that must collaborate to create cohesive change, can be potentially discouraging at first. However, Summerville encourages students to take the time necessary to explore the different ways to get involved in the nonprofit world and “find out where your talent and passion might better direct you.” Furthermore, as someone working with students across the country engaged in own their communities through YMCA’s service learning and advocacy work programs, Summerville encouraged current students to “look homeward” in seeking opportunities to explore the nonprofit sector. Although many internships have been eliminated or moved online, Summerville highlighted the benefits, more than ever, of students starting their careers in service or advocacy by simply looking to the organizations that provided those same services to them when they were younger. “Look around your own community,” he notes; “…there might be a group you didn’t even know about that is in need of something, and might have a space for you.”

The Rockefeller Center thanks the panelists for their time and generosity in sharing their experience and advice, and is continually in awe of their continued dedication to their important work for the public good.

-Written by Shawdi Mehrvarzan ’22, Rockefeller Center Student Program Assistant for Public Programs

The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences