Graduate students who apply to the prestigious Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) program usually seek the honor as a pathway into work for the federal government. Liz Otero, one of two University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) fellowship finalists for 2023, had a slightly different goal.
Otero, a consumer safety officer at the U.S. Food and Drug and Administration (FDA) since 2015, hoped the fellowship would propel her from a technical post at the FDA to a managerial position within the government workforce. More specifically, she wanted to become a PMF finalist to serve as role model for “other federal employees who have not received promotions in more than 10, 15, or even 20 years of their careers.”
Otero said the PMF program opened doors that had been closed to her, even with an MBA. Being named a PMF finalist has had an immediate impact on her career.
“As a woman of color, there are a lot of barriers I have to break. PMF is a unique opportunity for me to show who I am and what I’m capable of doing,” said Otero, who describes herself as a Hispanic of African descent. “When I apply directly for jobs, I never get interviews. When I applied for the same job within PMF, I got interviews… And I have received multiple invitations to apply for different PMF positions directly from hiring managers. That is a first!”
PMF finalists remain in the program for two years and, during that time, can apply to a roster of positions within the federal workforce. One position Otero is considering is with the Department of the Interior, helping to manage the 27,000-acre Gateway National Recreational Area. The park, which straddles the border of New Jersey and New York, is overseen by the U.S. National Parks Service. Another post on Otero’s radar would enable her to work directly with the White House.
Otero, who grew up in Puerto Rico, enrolled in the business administration graduate program at UMGC under a partnership between the university and the FDA. Previously, she had been enrolled at UMGC in a biotechnology program but had to postpone those studies to complete an intensive learning curriculum required by the FDA.
“Once I got CSO [Consumer Safety Officer] certified, I had an opportunity to take on a detail during COVID-19 working with people from the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Army and Department of Defense,” she said. “I made good friends who all had advanced degrees, and they encouraged to do an advanced degree.”
UMGC’s other Presidential Management Fellow finalist in 2023, Glenda Canales, also graduated in 2022 with an MBA. She and Otero are among 850 finalists selected from the more than 10,000 applicants in 98 different degree programs across 249 academic institutions worldwide, according to the PMF program office.
In 2022, a record six UMGC students were named PMF finalists. Thuy An Truong, who goes by the name Tina, was one of them. Truong enrolled at UMGC in 2019 when she felt she’d hit a plateau at her job.
“I worked full time so that’s why I liked UMGC. It provided a more flexible environment. My classmates were the same situation as I was, so it was easy to relate to one another regarding group projects,” she said. Her husband, who previously went through the PMF program, encouraged her to try for the fellowship, which carried a slightly different application process that year as it made efforts to expand its recruitment outreach to diverse communities.
Truong earned an MBA at UMGC. When she was named a PMF finalist, she found herself drawn to a strategic planning and risk-management position at the Department of Veterans Affairs [VA]. She was offered the job in December and started work in February.
“Part of the fellowship requires a four- to six-month rotation, which encourages you to gain a broader perspective of the federal government and explore different offices, programs, and agencies,” Truong said. “Right now, I’m a management and program analyst within the Office of Enterprise Integration.”
Truong’s work includes looking at the integration of some VA operations, policy, and technology to anticipate veteran’s needs.
“After I complete my fellowship and fulfill the 160 training hours that are required, I plan on converting as a full-time government employee to meet the three years needed for tenure,” Truong said. “After that, I can choose to stay with the government or transition back to the private sector.”
Truong said she looks forward to the program’s rotational opportunities because they will enable her to explore the work of different agencies. Her interest in inclusive and diverse communities and advocacy for fair housing has sparked her interest in the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
“There weren’t many opportunities at HUD when I first started looking, but for my rotation I’m hoping there will be some,” she said. She added that she is also interested in assignments with the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness or the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders.
For now, Truong is immersing herself in the Veterans Administration while also taking advantage of PMF-linked trainings, including a three-day leadership training program for all Presidential Management Fellows and a weeklong training hosted by the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University on how Congress is organized, functions, and affects the daily operations of the federal government.
“Coming from a completely different sector at my previous job, I knew nothing about working for an organization that was directly affected daily by Congress,” said Truong, who has subsequently found herself tuning into congressional hearings focused on veterans’ issues.
The Maryland native, whose parents grew up in Vietnam and found refuge in the United States after the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam War, has a bachelor’s degree in media and communications from the Catholic University of America. She was drawn to UMGC for her MBA because it was part of the University System of Maryland, more affordable than other graduate programs, and provided a flexible learning environment.
“And now, working at the VA and being part of the greater mission, I admire UMGC so much more as I know they are one of the top schools to support military members and veterans in advancing their educational goals,” Truong said. “When I was a student, there were many active duty servicemembers and veterans in my courses.”
Not all of UMGC’s 2022 PMF finalists ended up working for the government. Caren Clift completed a dual degree program that gave her a master’s in health care administration and an MBA. She applied to the PMF in hopes of joining the Department of Health and Human Services or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Before learning that she was a PMF finalist, however, she was offered—and accepted—a job with GW Medical Faculty Associates at the George Washington University.
“I was a month into the opportunity at George Washington Medical Faculty Associates when I learned I was a PMF finalist,” Clift said. “I decided, based on the money and the position, to stay at GW. The fellowship is still open to me, but I feel that this job in the private sector is working out well—and I really like. It’s helping me to build my leadership abilities.”
Clift handles project management at GW, with a focus on process improvement. “My job is never the same from one day to the next,” she said. “My senior director is very good at helping you learn and helping you progress.”
Another PMF finalist, Matthew Sinclair, withdrew from consideration after adopting an infant. Sinclair, assistant director of the Mechanical Engineering Program for University of Maryland College Park, completed his MBA at UMGC in 2021 and had envisioned the PMF as a precursor to a career change. Before learning that he and his husband had been approved for the adoption, he had considered PMF positions with the Treasury Department, the Department of Justice, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“The most exciting one to me, personally, was the operations analyst job with the Treasury Department. I would have been doing human resources, recruitment, data analysis, and budgeting work,” Sinclair said. However, he and his husband were matched much quicker than they had expected with their daughter.
“The prospect of parenting and completely changing careers at the same time just didn’t make practical sense,” he said.