Making Their Mark
By William A. Bowden, John Friedlein, and Tyler Young
It doesn’t take long for Transylvania graduates to begin to make their mark in the world. From South Africa to Washington, D.C., the university’s young alums are engaged in such diverse careers and issues as renewable energy development for the U.S. military, social justice and community development, international security, a mobile app for transportation needs, and public art and architecture. Here are some of their stories.
Learning foreign policy on the Hill
Before Transylvania officially created an international affairs major, Janelle Johnson ’10 designed her own.
Now she’s making her mark on the world.
Johnson was named the first Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Donald M. Payne Foreign Policy Fellow. She works for U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, a Democrat who represents a Los Angeles district.
The legislative fellow earned her master of public policy with a focus in international security at the University of Chicago.
Johnson will split her 20-month fellowship between congressional office duties and committee work in either the House or Senate.
In Bass’s office, Johnson is responsible for the congresswoman’s foreign and veterans affairs, defense, and Homeland Security portfolios. She tracks legislation that comes to the floor in those areas, keeps up with new bills, and makes recommendations as to which ones to support.
“My office has been great in that they’ve given me sort of full legislative assistant responsibilities,” Johnson said.
She also conducts meetings with constituents, organizations, and diplomats; and she writes vote recommendations for Bass, who is on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and a ranking member on the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations. Bass’s focus is Africa, and she has a different staffer dedicated to that continent. “I’m sort of responsible for the rest of the world,” Johnson said.
Additionally, she prepares material for foreign affairs hearings. This involves, for instance, writing information about witnesses, Bass’s opening statements, and potential questions. Then Johnson attends the hearings.
Her fellowship includes an educational component that is made up of leadership development seminars, writing workshops, and policy forums.
“I’m learning how politics influences policy,” Johnson said.
She hopes to someday work at an executive agency or think tank as a Middle East policy analyst. “Who knows, I might enjoy committee work and decide to stay on the Hill,” she said. “The thought in D.C. is that once you work on the Hill, you can pretty much go anywhere because of the relationships that you build.”
Studying the art of perspective
Joseph Underwood ’12 has learned to view the world through different perspectives—a valuable skill in the study of contemporary African art.
Underwood, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in art history and criticism at New York’s Stony Brook University, broadened his mindset through both his studies and travel.
While a student at Transylvania, he researched art and architecture in a variety of locales, including Senegal, France, and eastern China. Globetrotting enabled him to feel comfortable outside his own context. “You have to be able to just step back from your perspective and look at it through another person to understand that maybe you don’t have a full picture of what you’re talking about,” Underwood said.
Adding to his international experience, 25 of his fellow 35 graduate students in the Stony Brook program hail from different countries.
Underwood, whose focus is on French-speaking Senegal, is interested especially in public art and architecture—“how they work together and what they say about national identity,” he said. “Everyone is establishing who they are. Senegal is not Ghana, and Ghana is not Nigeria.”
In addition to understanding the relationship between artists and their countries, a goal is to place them in the global scene.
Underwood said he wants to be a professor someday. Working toward that objective, he is a teaching assistant with plans to create his own courses in a couple of years.
Underwood also is enthusiastic about how the growing study of new African art is in a nascent stage. “It’s not a huge field,” he said. “Everyone else likes to study van Gogh and Monet.”
Since there has been so little research, “the whole subject is new, so that’s what I find exciting,” Underwood said. “I get to be a part of the field that helps establish the theory and the criticism that will determine the next generation of how contemporary African art is looked at.”
Acting out social justice passions in South Africa
Holly Milburn ’11 has always had a heart for the disadvantaged—so much so that she designed a social justice major while at Transylvania. She’s getting to act on that passion through her work with the Anglican Church of Southern Africa’s provincial social development organization, HOPE Africa, in Cape Town, South Africa.
Milburn moved to New York City after graduation as a member of the Young Adult Service Corps of the Episcopal Church’s Office of Global Mission Personnel to organize individualized placements throughout the world for its young adult volunteers. She was sent to Cape Town to partner with a variety of programs aimed at fighting poverty.
“It’s not what most would consider missionary work because I’m not working directly with a parish,” explains Milburn, “but it is inherently faith-based and requires a deep commitment to social justice—a fundamental yet often neglected component of Christianity.”
Working for an independent, non-governmental organization means her assignments vary day-to-day. She might be found in an office writing grant proposals or working in the field on a project such as a hospital in a remote village, a community garden in Cape Town’s largest township, or a hospice clinic in an impoverished fishing town.
“My favorite project is the Poverty and Development Course that we facilitate for community leaders all over South Africa,” says Milburn. “I’ve really enjoyed working with marginalized communities in past jobs, but social development is a whole different ballgame.
“The most rewarding part of my work is that it’s a constant reminder that I’m not yet a finished person. Every day I’m meeting people whose narratives are radically different than my own. And in doing so, I’m learning how to live out my passions and become the person I’ve always wanted to be.”
Milburn currently has a one-year visa. After that, she plans to move back to New York and continue her work with the Young Adult Service Corps while figuring out where her next assignment will take her. “I think Southeast Asia is calling my name,” she muses.
Networking for economic growth
Social networking is about more than just posting a picture on Facebook. It can foster economic growth.
While working on a Ph.D. in business administration at the University of Kentucky, Brandon Ofem ’07 is managing a study about networks of Appalachian community development groups such as chambers of commerce.
“We’re trying to understand how these organizations are working together and identify new ways for them to achieve their goals better,” said Ofem, whose last name was Powell until after he graduated and took his Nigerian dad’s last name.
The Kentucky Study on Economic Development Organizations is a two-year initiative funded by a $485,553 National Science Foundation grant. UK’s Gatton College of Business and Economics is world-renowned in analysis of social networks.
Now in the data collection stage, an interdisciplinary team of faculty is conducting the research.
Ofem helped write much of the grant and influenced the study’s development.
While the initiative isn’t focused on virtual networks such as Twitter and Facebook, researchers are collecting hyperlink data to see whether an organization links to another one on its website.
“Social networks can come in many forms,” Ofem said. “We’re more interested in the direct ties.” The study aims to find out which organizations are giving money to each other or are working on the same projects, for instance. It also will identify the groups that need more information.
“We’ll probably be analyzing this for at least a couple of years,” Ofem said. “The real value of this study is that we’re going to build a unique data set that hopefully many studies will be able to use.”
His dissertation is based on this research—so it’s like he is getting paid to write it.
Ofem, who plans to graduate in May 2014, will start applying for jobs as an assistant professor of strategy or entrepreneurship at a business school in the fall.
Ofem was introduced to research at Transylvania, where he said a focus on writing has helped with his graduate work.
“I absolutely love research,” he said. “I love exploring and discovering things.”
Serving your transportation needs
Erik Weber ’07 recently left his position with the federal government’s Department of Transportation to become director of operations at the private company Uber, a technology start-up firm offering a mobile app for consumers to use when they need immediate transportation, such as car or taxi service.
But that doesn’t mean he’s left the world of public transportation policy behind. Far from it. In fact, as he puts it, he now works at the “intersection of local government, mobile technology, and the transportation industry.”
The Uber app allows consumers to use their smart phones to request car, limousine, or taxi service in real time. Instead of hitting the sidewalk and waving your hand to hail a taxi, you can make your request from your office, for instance, and walk out to find your transportation pulling up at the curb.
But there are challenges involving that seemingly straightforward business model, in the form of local transportation regulations. For instance, although Uber is in more than 30 cities worldwide and has car service in New York City, it hasn’t cracked Manhattan’s huge taxi market because of outdated regulations.
“E-hailing, which is effectively what Uber enables users to do in other cities, isn’t allowed in New York City,” Weber said. “You have to go out and wave your hand. These regulations, which are being updated, were written long before the concept of a smart phone existed.”
In those situations, Weber now sits on the other side of the regulatory table.
“I’m no longer the public administrator as I was at DOT, but I now deal with them as well as local governments on a regular basis,” he said.
For Weber, a bonus in his new position is the opportunity to use a broader range of his Transylvania credentials.
“My work at DOT was almost entirely public policy, where my political science major was primary, but with Uber, I am sort of in between the public and private sectors. I do data analysis, which draws on my math major, and refinements to the app, which is computer science.”
Weber, who earned a master of public administration degree from Morehead State University, lives in Washington, D.C.
Leading the way toward renewable resources
For Sarah Miller ’09, using Transylvania’s broad-based biology program to discover her interests and then finding a compatible graduate program have been the keys to a successful start to her career.
Miller is a senior consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton in Washington, D.C., a leading provider of management and technology consulting services to the U.S. government in defense, intelligence, and civil markets. She provides full-time, on-site project management for the Army’s Energy Initiative Task Force Execution Division, which oversees large-scale renewable energy development across all Army installations.
After graduating from Transylvania, she earned a master of public administration degree in environmental science and policy at Columbia University, where she focused on energy studies.
“My Transylvania coursework let me experience many specialties until I found my niche, which is environmental and ecological sciences,” she said. “And then Columbia’s program let me further my area of specialty.”
The projects Miller consults on with the Army involve a range of renewable energy sources, from solar to wind and biodiesel. She provides functional expertise in project management and helps engage diverse stakeholders, from Army installations to utility companies, to gain support for renewable energy projets.
Though her work focuses on renewable energy sources, Miller recognizes that traditional sources still play a large role in providing energy needs.
“Our energy makeup won’t look the same everywhere,” she said. “There are regions where you have large-scale solar projects going in, such as Arizona and southern California. We also have to value other resources, such as natural gas. It’s more of a holistic approach that will include leveraging traditional carbon-based fuel sources as well as renewables.”
Her career is only just underway, but already Miller feels she has found a good niche for herself.
“My work is different from what I thought I would be doing when I started out, but I could always see a natural evolution that led to my present position,” she said. “I feel very fortunate to have a creative career path that I’m really interested in.”