Federal Spotlight: Melinda Burks
Melinda Burks serves as a Senior Program Officer for the U.S. Department of State. Here is our Federal Spotlight interview:
MC: How long have you been in Federal service and what is your main responsibility in your role today?
Melinda Burks: I have been in the Federal sector (contractor) since June 2014. I currently work as a Senior Program Officer with the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Office of English Language Programs where I manage global academic exchanges and training programs for international educators. I worked as an English as a Foreign Language teacher in several countries prior to joining the State Department.
MC: What keeps you motivated and passionate to stay in the public sector?
MB: My past experience keeps me motivated and passionate about working in the public sector. I am a first-generation college graduate that had to search for resources, opportunities, and mentors. I did not come from a family that was well-versed in government or international affairs, so I had to pave a path for myself. I was granted the opportunity to break generational molds due to public programs, which is what motivates me to stay in the public sector. I couldn’t afford traveling to other countries if it weren’t for a scholarship I received to participate in a study abroad program. I wouldn’t have been able to go to college without the Pell Grant and other Federally-funded scholarships.
My education, paired with programs offered by the Federal government, truly changed my life trajectory. I like to think that I am paying it forward by working in the public sector and simply working to provide someone coming from a challenging environment with limited resources the same opportunities that I was given when I was younger. Also, the teacher in me never dies, so I am passionate about equipping anyone with the knowledge and skills to be a change agent in their circle(s) of influence.
Another motivator for me is knowing that my work is in direct alignment with my core values. All of my life experiences up until this point have prepared me for working in the public sector, whether I realized it or not. I thought I wanted to work in Public Relations, but I was not fulfilled. The universe continued pulling me back into education and public work. Knowing that I have the opportunity to create educational and cultural programs for both domestic and international audiences is personally gratifying.
MC: What is one of your biggest achievements?
MB: A couple of my professional achievements would be designing creative academic exchanges for teachers. I am most proud of this moment because when I was brought on as a Senior Program Officer for academic exchanges my office was doing one exchange a year. In one year the program expanded to three exchanges and four the following year. I had to pursue this position with a spirit of entrepreneurship, so to speak, so I’m very proud of this component’s expansion.
Additionally, it is gratifying to know that my job includes creating professional development opportunities for teachers that impact classrooms in over 85 countries. As previously mentioned, I worked as a teacher prior to joining the State Department. I am a true advocate of teachers, professional development, and training of any kind, so to have a job that requires creating opportunities for personal and professional advancement is a great achievement.
One other achievement I have to mention would be my participation in hosting the Youth Forum event with my employee affinity group, the Carl T Rowan Chapter of Blacks in Government. This event included political appointees and senior-level officials from various bureaus, who provided personal anecdotes to the many career opportunities that are available to anyone seeking to join the government. They also highlighted the various exchange programs that are available for high school students. This was a significant accomplishment for me because it was a true manifestation of what motivates me to do my work. I did not come from a familial or educational background that was well-versed in government or even international affairs. I had a limited worldview at the time. Had I been exposed in high school to information or events like this, I would have gotten an earlier start in my career. This event brought my personal and professionals goals together in one room, and for that I am proud.
MC: What advice would you share with young people on entering government?
MB: My advice to young people entering government would be to trust the process and have focused flexibility with your career. In speaking with a number of my millennial peers who are at a crossroads in what they want to do, they seem to have still maintained a linear view. But life doesn’t work that way. It’s important to have a plan, but I also encourage having a plan with the flexibility of getting experience in other avenues since one doesn’t know where that unbeaten path may lead.
This segues into my next point of advice, which is to stay ready for unexpected opportunities that present themselves in unexpected packaging. What do I mean by this? Well, I never thought that I would be doing the work that I am doing right now. I applied as an intern to the State Department with the hope of becoming a Regional English Language Officer in the Foreign Service. My plan was to take steps toward this goal by getting an English Language Fellowship through my office. I was offered the Fellowship but I turned it down to take the job that I am doing now. This job offer was not in my plans, but it has led to much more than I could have ever imagined had I stuck with what I originally wanted. This is what I mean by focused flexibility and being ready for any opportunity that presents itself.
My last piece of advice would be to always be a learner. You will never fully master anything; and that is OK. Be humble enough to ask for help and seek out mentors to be a champion along your journey. If you want a long, fruitful career, always be willing and open to learn new things.