By Mari Megias
February 28, 2019
When Cate Fox-Lent MC/MPA 2019 wanted insight into careers in the nonprofit world, she turned to Harvard Kennedy School’s alumni network.
“I am trying to pivot from science and engineering research work to nonprofit management,” says Fox-Lent. “One of the challenges is figuring out exactly what different job titles mean in the nonprofit sector and where to aim, given my skillset.”
Enter Craig Altemose MPP/JD 2010. A year after he graduated from HKS, Altemose co-founded Better Future Project (BFP), a Massachusetts nonprofit that addresses climate change at the grassroots level. He opened BFP’s doors to Fox-Lent during her winter break as part of the Kennedy School’s annual Career Shadowing Initiative, which matches students with alumni in 10 cities worldwide. This year, more than 80 alumni-student pairs met in cities from Beijing to Boston.
Says Fox-Lent, “I wanted to shadow an alum in a small-to-medium nonprofit to get an idea of how different positions work with each other and toward the organizational mission.” During her day with Altemose, she attended fundraising and planning meetings. “The experience really connected with everything I've been learning in classes about leading, motivating, and persuading,” she says.
Like Fox-Lent, Daniel Bicknell MPP 2020 connected concepts from the classroom to real-world activities. He visited with alumnus José Luis Romo MPP 2008, who serves as the secretary of economic development for the state of Hidalgo in Mexico. Says Bicknell, “In my ‘Conflict and Collaboration’ course this past semester, I learned about Dacher Keltner’s power paradox, and I found it fascinating to observe this team dynamic in the context of this course.”
Bicknell signed up to shadow an alum because he wanted to learn more about life after graduate school. “I thought the shadowing opportunity would be a unique experience to understand the challenges the alum faces in their public service work and the methods they use to confront the challenges,” he says.
The experience was enjoyable and educational. “I noticed that José Luis relied heavily on his management and communication skills over the course of the two-day shadowing experience,” he says. “Overall, the shadowing experience reaffirmed my desire to work in public service and have the fundamental mission to improve social good.”
Joanna Bell MPP 2020 signed up for the initiative because she wanted to collect information about switching from her previous career in nonprofit management to city government. “I thought that shadowing Dan Rich [MPP 1992], the city manager of Mountain View, California, would give me a high-level overview of the work done to keep a city running smoothly, and give me insight into non-elected leadership in cities.”
She says she “learned a ton” about what a city manager does and how cities run in the Bay Area. “I also learned about different ways affluent cities are tackling affordable housing and homelessness,” she says.
For his part, Rich says, “It is important to provide support and guidance to students as they begin their career journeys. And it’s also really fun and energizing for me! I am involved in a two-county initiative that is working to attract, retain, and grow the next generation of local government leaders in Silicon Valley. We desperately need to attract talented young professionals, so hosting a student was a no-brainer.”
Back in Massachusetts, Laura Melle MPP 2015, formerly the senior procurement lead at the City of Boston’s Department of Innovation and Technology and currently the deputy director of real estate procurement and vendor management for the city, was grateful to share her experience and learn from her student. “I’m proud that HKS is increasingly prioritizing technology and local government operations,” she said. “It was great to talk about the digital HKS initiative, the Government Performance Lab fellowships, and other opportunities.”
Both Fox-Lent and Altemose would repeat the experience. Says Altemose, “I think it's a great way to reconnect with the Kennedy School, help a current student, and meet someone with an interesting background whom you might even want to work with one day.”
Fox-Lent says, “The shadow opportunity was so much more enlightening than I expected it to be, and I think there are a lot of observations that I can bring to future job interviews! It's so low stress—it’s a great way to observe and ask candid questions without actually being in an interview setting.”
Registration for career shadowing typically opens each October. According to alumni and students who have participated, the opportunity is a unique chance to leverage the alumni network for advice and experience. Says Bell of her time in Mountain View, “There's not anything more I could have asked for!”