Who Will Help the Country?

Published by Rebecca Goldfine
GPS apps open on their phones, two Bowdoin students motioned for their peers to cross the busy DC street and sprint across the green ahead. They had fifteen minutes to make it in time to Foggy Bottom, where they were to meet with top-level U.S. Department of State officials (who are also Bowdoin alumni).
Introducing the Bowdoin Public Service Initiative

On the sidewalk in front of the Harry S. Truman building, a few students switched out of sneakers and into more professional shoes. They made their way through security and down long, narrow halls to a meeting room that compensated for its lack of windows with large, evocative portraits of people from around the world. There they were introduced to Susan Thornton ’85, former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and Chris Hill ’74, former ambassador to Iraq, South Korea, Poland, and Macedonia.

What followed was a frank conversation about what it is like to work in foreign service. Students asked far-reaching questions about international issues addressed at the department, from North Korea to climate change, and also how the staff copes with changing administrations that take international policy in new directions. 

Students meet with Bowdoin Alumni in Washington DC
March 2018: the inaugural class of Bowdoin Public Service in Washington, with US Department of State’s Susan Thornton ’85, former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs
“Public service is exciting,” Thornton said to the students. “You learn by doing; it’s endlessly fascinating. If you are resilient and flexible, if you can deal with change and are curious, consider a government career.”

Despite recent trends at the department, including a hiring rate that dipped by more than a third between 2016 and 2017, optimism and inspiration threaded through the conversation. 

The Bowdoin Public Service Initiative is both traditional and timely. Public service, including to one’s country, has always been a foundational part of the College’s mission. In recent years, though, partisan conflict and potential job insecurity have dampened young people’s enthusiasm for government work. To help push back against this trend, Bowdoin’s new initiative invites its students to look beyond the headlines and explore what it really means to serve the common good through public service.

The vision for the Initiative originated with several alumni and career public servants, but principally with Ambassador Thomas Pickering ’53, H ’84. “As a student, I was personally inspired at Bowdoin that you could do something in your life not measured purely by financial return, but by the ability to contribute to others,” Pickering said last year. But he also expressed concern that government jobs are losing their appeal to college graduates.

Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering '53, H'84—who inspired the creation of the Bowdoin Public Service Initiative at Bowdoin College—talks about the rewards and challenges of public service.

“I find people less and less understand our government and more and more are frustrated by it... I’d like to have more Bowdoin graduates, in the spirit of the common good, understand what the opportunities are—and understand the challenges—and how much public service means to the country.”

——Ambassador Pickering

Bowdoin Public Service in three ways

The McKeen Center for the Common Good program is structured in three parts. Though each is distinct, they are all intended to help students explore opportunities in the public sector.

In the old days, a DC “in” for an ambitious young person, perhaps via an internship or entry-level job, may have been abetted by family connections or class privileges. To break down barriers to access, the Bowdoin Public Service program is free for all participants. 

An Evening with former White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough

Bowdoin Public Service in Washington enables ten sophomores and two senior leaders, plus Sarah Chingos, to spend a week in the nation’s capital over spring break. To ground these hectic days in a base of knowledge, the students study the US government in a seven-week seminar on campus leading up to the trip. (Check out last semester’s seminars and the DC itinerary.)

The second component of the program, Bowdoin Public Service Fellowships, provides grants to five Bowdoin juniors so they can pursue summer internships at government agencies or policy-related organizations in DC. Throughout the summer, they also met with alumni in DC. 

The third piece, Bowdoin Public Service On-Campus Programming, broadens the initiative to include the wider Bowdoin community. Throughout the year, Chingos invites government and public policy experts to speak at Bowdoin. The first event in the series this year was a talk with Denis McDonough, President Obama’s chief of staff. McDonough was interviewed by Katie Benner ’99, a New York Times journalist. 

Chart of public service workforce participation over time
Partnership for Public Service, 2015, ourpublicservice.org

Tending to our democracy

Bowdoin has launched its new Public Service Initiative at a time when more people are asking how we can uphold our democracy, protecting it from the deleterious influences of partisan polarization, a splintering of media, and Russian meddlers.

Part of the problem is that the American public might be tuning out. National polls reveal a public that is skeptical of civic institutions, frustrated with politicians, distrustful of those who hold opposing views, and lacking knowledge about basic tenets of our government. A survey last year by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that 37 percent of those surveyed couldn’t name any of their rights guaranteed under the First Amendment, and about 75 percent didn’t know all three branches of the government.

Meanwhile, more college-educated young people are spurning careers in government for other pursuits that seem to promise more rewarding experiences and pay. “The number of federal government employees under the age of 30 is now around 7 percent, the lowest it has been in nearly a decade,” reports The Hill

Looking at this situation through a perspective seasoned by many decades in the foreign service, Pickering said he is motivated to address these trends with Bowdoin students. “This is a great country, and it needs great people doing important work up and down the line to keep it moving,” he said.

Pickering mentioned that he always tells new entrants to foreign service “how important it is in times of great stress that we have a bedrock of solidly committed public servants to keep us on course.”

“The government isn’t doing a great job of selling itself, and it’s no longer seen as a viable place to work. But DC is a place you can go to execute change — through government, think tanks, NGOs — not just the government, but everything that circulates around it as well.”

—— Ambassador Pickering

A Day in the Life of Bowdoin Public Service students in DC

Andrew Rudalevige, a government professor at Bowdoin, says he’s pleased to see Bowdoin students reacting to the current political scene with inspiration rather than revulsion, that they are “eager to join in, not to switch off.”

“I’m delighted to see our BPS students not just watching the soap operatic aspects of today’s politics but grappling with the less dramatic, but hugely important, policy work that the government does behind the scenes—what Max Weber called ‘the slow boring of hard boards,’” he added.

An expanding web

When they first applied for the public service program, several of the Bowdoin students echoed the general public when it came to their (fairly skeptical) attitudes toward federal government. Perhaps the only difference, and it is a significant one, was that the students were willing to challenge their notions.

“My perception of government and how it worked today was incredibly negative,” Artur Kalandarov ’20 recalled.

Before the program, Olivia Giles ’20 said the government appeared not to be “getting a lot done,” and that what was getting done “was not doing anything effective for the United States, or achieving anything. And we had moved past this era when we were the movers and shakers of the world.”

Several of the students also indicated they had no idea of the variety of governmental careers. “I had a narrow mindset of what public service was,” Abigail Silsby ’20 said. “I thought it was just working for Congress, to be honest.”

Pickering and Chingos knew the best way to shift perceptions was to sit students in front of the people in government who are working to make a difference every day.

Before the trip, Chingos scoured databases of Bowdoin alumni to recruit graduates and others connected to the Bowdoin community to meet with students. “My goal was to find elected, appointed, and career officials in all three branches of government, with a variety of perspectives, and have the whole experience sit on a bed of policy issues — environmental, foreign, immigration, and human rights,” she said. By the end of her search, word had spread, and alumni were contacting her to offer their assistance.

So, during one week in DC last March, students squeezed in back-to-back meetings with more than thirty-six alumni and others connected to the College. Among the many people they met were a Supreme Court appellate litigator, a solicitor general, Maine’s congressional delegation, former intelligence officials, and a codirector at the Department of Health and Human Services. Dashes through the city were followed by revealing, profound, and sometimes emotional conversations with alumni (and later at their hostel, among one another) about what public service is, and what it means personally to commit yourself to serving the country.

The alumni frequently highlighted the link between their Bowdoin education to where they are today. Chingos said, “They were able to say, ‘This is what my Bowdoin experience looked like. These are the skills and character traits I developed, and here is how I built on them and applied them.’ That is very powerful for our students, to be able to see these real pathways offered by our alumni.”

“To see these people who are so passionate about their work and care so much about humanity was so inspiring—and so relieving. I’m like, we’re going to be okay. The world is going to be okay.”

——Scout Gregerson ’18

These discussions helped fill out for students in real, human dimensions what can seem from afar like abstract bureaucratic jobs with unwieldy titles. “You can’t really have a good concept of a [career] pathway until you’ve viewed the people who walk it every day and live that experience,” Theo Gardner-Puschak ’20 said, adding that he’s always been interested in government and politics but couldn’t quite envision a way there. “So getting to go to Washington, and see the concrete details, meet Bowdoin grads in their offices, and go to the different agencies really solidified my vision and made it more real in terms of the places I can see myself.”

Kalandarov said the trip was transformative. “I think the perception we get with media reporting of politics and campaigns…doesn’t represent all the other people who are career public servants who are in it for the long run, who have visions of a better society and who work toward that no matter what is going on up above,” he said. “It was really reassuring and made me seriously think about a career in public service.”

Chingos credited the generosity of the alumni who shared their time and stories with the Bowdoin students. “The incredible enthusiasm and willingness of our alumni to reach back and say, ‘Let me help you, let me connect you with internships or other Bowdoin alumni’ will make a difference in the future trajectory for these students.”

She paused: “From their openness, the web of opportunity has expanded.”

Career Advice from the Pros

Throughout the trip, alumni offered students bits of hard-won wisdom. Here are a few memorable pieces of counsel:

  • Write precisely, concisely, and quickly. “No one wants twenty-page papers!” Cutting and pasting is fine. “You need good secretarial skills.”
  • Speak precisely. “Precision is key to getting your message across.”
  • Complaining doesn’t get you far. Constructive criticism is better.”
  • “Having a math and science background is good. It makes it harder for people to lie to you.”
  • Don’t lose your temper. “Never throw a chair! It means the other side is winning.” 
  • “Don’t have a strict plan for your career. See what doors open to you and where you can go.”
  • “When you think about your future career, ask yourself what types of questions you like to ask and how you like to communicate.”