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3 ASU School of Social Work grads serving in federal fellowships

The grads outlasted fierce competition for a small number of positions at CDC, Defense, Health and Human Services departments

Exterior of the United States Capitol

The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Photo by Andy Feliciotti for Unsplash

March 01, 2024

Securing a fellowship with a federal agency is a desirable opportunity for many Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions students planning careers as their graduation approaches.

The fellowships provide rare, significant opportunities to train for positions in government leadership. Applicants hail from all parts of the country, many walks of life and a wide variety of academic disciplines.

Thousands contend each year for a relative handful of positions, said Elizabeth Lightfoot, Distinguished Professor of Social Policy and director of Arizona State University’s School of Social Work.

“Given the keen competition applicants experience, we very much appreciate that the school has three recent graduates currently serving in federal fellowships,” Lightfoot said.

The following three May 2023 graduates of the school — all of whom took policy, administration and community development (PAC) courses and earned a Master of Social Work — are among those who rose to the top of selection lists. They currently serve in the following federal fellowships:

  • Andrea Hanson is a Presidential Management Fellow working as a public health analyst (policy and issues management) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention within its Division of Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention. She is originally from Los Angeles and lives in Surprise, Arizona. 
  • Briana Mayers, who has relocaed to Washington, D.C., from Arizona, is serving in the U.S. Department of Defense’s John S. McCain Strategic Defense Fellowship, a development program for recent advanced-degree graduates from multiple academic disciplines aimed toward recruiting and developing future leaders from across the country. 
  • Destinee Sior-Hermosillo accepted a Pathways Fellowship with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General on its Office of Evaluation and Inspection team. She is a social science research analyst (student trainee). The Phoenix native is also on track to receive a Master of Public Administration in public finance from ASU's Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions in May 2024.

In the following Q&A, each grad provided a look inside her duties, the process to become a fellow and plans to further develop her career from the experience.

Note: Answers may have been edited lightly for length or clarity.

Question: What interested you in working for the federal government, and the agency you are serving?

Hanson: My interest comes from my desire to serve the American people. I served in the U.S. Army Reserve for eight years, and I wanted to continue the practice of serving the public without a weapon in my hand.

The most vulnerable people in our society depend on the bureaucracy to assist them. My goal is to be a part of solutions rather than complaining about problems. Working for the federal government allows me the ability to be a small part of continued service and, hopefully, change.

Mayers: I was looking for opportunities for recent grads to gain work experience. This fellowship provides the unique opportunity to bring my new expertise into the heart of real work, while still allowing me to ask questions and receive mentorship.

The fellowship also provided an opportunity to move to the nation's capital through a relocation incentive. Moving out of Arizona to Washington was a large factor in my decision process. ... I have been fortunate enough to be placed with the Department of the Army. 

Sior-Hermosillo: I knew I always wanted to work in the public sector, either for the federal government or a city in Arizona. I was sent the Pathways Fellowship opportunity by a friend who knew I was interested in research and I strongly value justice. Knowing this, I knew that working for the U.S. Health and Human Services' Office of Inspector General was the right choice for me to learn more about the accountability measures the federal government has to provide accessible public health programs. 

Q: How did the education you received at the School of Social Work prepare you for these fellowships?

Hanson: The school, specifically the PAC courses, prepared me to have the critical thinking necessary to do policy work. Courses that focused on program evaluation and development as well as critical thinking prepared me to take on large projects. I came to understand how goals must not only be defined but also evaluated, to learn if they are viable.

I think above all else, the PMF program is looking for individuals who are passionate about helping the public and have different ways of approaching problems. Because the School of Social Work teaches different approaches to problems, I have the unique ability to look at a problem from several different viewpoints.

Mayers: The PAC education I received played a tremendous role in preparing me for my fellowship. Learning the functions of policies in the corporate arena and the federal government, how Congress works, gaining leadership skills and sharpening my research skills are all integral to my day-to-day work. Having learned how to work with and engage communities in a strengths-based manner is also key to the skills I use now and will continue to use in the future. 

Sior-Hermosillo: I strongly utilized the skills learned in my program evaluation class. I was also able to do an independent study with (former ASU Professor) David Becerra during my last semester. That experience really helped me, and I was able to talk about my experience working on the SPSS (Statistical Package for the Social Sciences) and writing research papers. It also gave me the confidence I needed to even apply to the fellowship in the first place. I did not have any prior research experience. 

Q: Briefly describe your day-to-day duties and any special projects.

Hanson: My activities include analyzing research and creating (emergency notification alerts to the public) and one-page reports. I also work on talking points for our directors to speak with Congress. In addition to that work, I participate in legal coding for another team within our division to research how redlining has impacted cardiovascular health.

Mayers: It includes research for senior leaders and keeping up with relevant policies. I am also able to attend professional development sessions and trainings. I also write correspondence from my office, the Equity and Inclusion Agency, to the office of senior leaders, including the Secretary of the Army. 

Sior-Hermosillo: (My workplace) is extremely team-oriented. Once a project is determined, a team will be formed. From start to end, the project could take up to three years, and each person on the staff typically has two to three projects at one time. Which phase your projects are in will determine your day-to-day activities. One project could be in the data collection phase, while another is in the writing phase. It keeps everything very interesting and not boring. My boss is also very focused on our learning new skills, and so there are many career development trainings.

Q: What was the application, interviewing and selection process like?

Hanson: The Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF) is the federal government’s flagship leadership program. In 2023, it garnered over 10,000 applicants, with over 600 being selected and 300 being placed. The first phase includes submitting your resume and taking an exam. The second phase includes a blind phone interview. The final phase includes interviewing with federal agencies to finally be selected as a fellow. The process begins in September and ended in May for me, but it can take up to a year.

Mayers: The application included a resume, professional statement, writing sample and three letters of recommendation. There was one interview and a pre-employment background check. 

Sior-Hermosillo: I applied on the USA Jobs website and submitted a cover letter and resume. I had a panel interview with four interviewers from the office who held a variety of positions, including team leads and social science research analysts. They all took turns asking about my experience in research and areas of public health I would like to focus on. I also had many phone calls with the deputy regional inspector general of my region. She would call and tell me about the process of getting hired by the federal government. ... If my memory serves me correctly, there were 1,017 applicants for the position. They accepted 10 to 12 across all of the regions, and my region only picked two.

Q: How long is your fellowship? What next career steps are you considering?

Hanson: The PMF program is for two years and allows you to select a rotation with another federal agency for four to six months. I thoroughly enjoy working with the CDC and would like to continue a career within my division, with the goal one day to work exclusively on elder-adult issues.

In the long term, I would like to have the opportunity to inspire and possibly teach other social work students to get involved in policy work. Social workers are unique in that they look at the systems that impact individuals. That unique perspective is especially needed when developing laws and policy for our most vulnerable in society. I also see myself leaving the federal government after some time to get into advocacy.

Mayers: My fellowship is one year. Following that, I am exploring post-fellowship opportunities within the same organization, likely within public health and prevention spaces. 

Sior-Hermosillo: Initially, my fellowship was only supposed to last the summer. However, I was really lucky. They asked to extend my fellowship from August to May. I know I want to work in either federal or local government. This fellowship has allowed me to complete my GS-9 (General Schedule) year. This means that if I stay with the federal government, I am able to advocate to be on a different GS level. ... Your GS level is partially based on experience, and so any way you can get that is good.

Q: What advice would you give to students seeking a fellowship such as yours?

Hanson: Apply for a position as a foreign service officer. Study the position’s test questions on situational judgment, because that is what the PMF exam is based on. Next, I would encourage students to make themselves marketable. Even though you may be tired or have familial demands, it is important that you leave college in the best position possible. Create a vision, seek out internships and jobs that support that vision. It is imperative to find mentors and have someone you can express your fears to.

Mayers: Play to your strengths while being willing to learn something new. These fellowships are about gaining skills and professional growth.

Sior-Hermosillo: Try to network! That’s a big reason I won this fellowship, because I attended a career fair and met my boss prior to applying for it. She remembered meeting me, and I think this helped me get a callback. I was competing against many students from Ivy League schools as well as doctoral students.

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