By Eric Ruble
The federal government may have a reputation for red tape and slow progress, but two recent USC Price graduates say they’re prepared to make an impact at some of the country’s biggest agencies.
Riley Carbonneau and Julie Wong graduated from Price in May and were accepted into the prestigious Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF) program. The two-year fellowship appoints recent advanced-degree graduates to positions throughout the federal government.
Both women were inspired by different experiences, but share common goals. We spoke with the fellowship recipients to dive deeper into their hopes for the program.
A career change to create change
Wong is working in the Employment and Training Administration in the Department of Labor (DOL) after receiving her master’s in real estate development (MRED) from Price. It’s the third master’s-level degree she has earned during her career.
“There was never a prouder moment for my father than when I told him I was going to do the USC Price program,” Wong said. Both her father and brother also attended USC and were ecstatic to learn she would be a Trojan, too. “There is something about the Trojan Family. You cannot get away from that. It’s as much about your fellow students as it is about your professors.”
Wong is leading the DOL’s Office of Apprenticeships’ efforts to create diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) goals to future-proof America’s workforce, meeting industry demand by connecting an inclusive range of job seekers with well-paid jobs in emerging markets.
“The very first DEI training I joined was led by USC Price Director of Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives, Dr. LaVonna Lewis — so I felt right at home!” Wong said.
She will also be doing a rotation in the Department of Energy, where she says she aims to transform nuclear research labs into innovation hubs driving diverse economic growth.
“I’m looking for a new adventure and the new adventure I want is in the government. That’s certainly not where I thought I would end up,” said Wong, who also has a bachelor’s degree from Yale, an MBA from Northwestern and an MA from San Jose State.
Wong, a San Francisco native, became involved in real estate immediately after her program at Yale. More recently, she served on Mayor London Breed’s 2018 election campaign.
“We talked a lot about housing. Mayor Breed was the only candidate who was actually a renter. And housing is crazy in San Francisco – it’s crazy all over California,” Wong said.
Even with her decades of experience in real estate, she encountered new and innovative material at Price. Like Professor Christian Redfearn’s financial modeling class, for example – Wong said this course was especially challenging, and valuable, as Redfearn demonstrated how the modeling can be applied in the real world.
“There are more lessons that I’ve learned during the past year that are of immediate use to me than in any other year of my education,” said Wong.
Hoping to use her new expertise on an even broader level, Wong applied to the Presidential Management Fellowship. She is the first Price MRED graduate to be accepted to the program.
“I had stereotypes about what the government was going to be like,” she said. “It’s really not a place of soulless, faceless bureaucrats. If you really want to do something important, you’re going to join a team that looks like it’s going someplace.”
“I’m 57 now, so it’s taken me a long time to get to this point,” Wong said, sharing that her children have now graduated from college. “I have a chance to go into whatever I want.”
While her younger self cared deeply about job titles, she now looks for positions in which she can have the greatest impact. The fellowship is a rotational program, so Wong will have the opportunity to work in different parts of the federal government and find a role where she feels most useful.
“I haven’t ever worked in government before, so I’m excited about doing this,” Wong said. “This is policy, but it’s policy that’s practical. It’s policy that can actually have an impact.”
Putting academic theory into practice
Like Wong, Carbonneau was drawn to apply to the Presidential Management Fellowship because of the federal government’s potential to help generate wide-reaching change.
“I think I’ve always been geared toward the federal level just because of the breadth of influence,” Carbonneau said.
She graduated from Price with her master’s in public administration in May and will be working on program evaluation and policy support in the USDA’s Supplemental Food Programs Division. The division oversees WIC, a food assistance program aimed at low-income women, infants and children. WIC served 6.2 million Americans in 2020, according to the USDA.
Carbonneau said the program allows fellows to rapidly learn about how federal agencies function and prepares them for government careers through 80 hours of professional development training.
“It’s really a program designed to accelerate your ability to be a good civil servant, specifically at the federal level,” she said.
Serving others has been an important part of Carbonneau’s journey. Before arriving at Price, Carbonneau worked for nonprofits. While she had years of experience in financial management in that space, she was relatively unfamiliar with budgeting in the public sector. That changed when she took a class instructed by Professor Michael Thom.
“I never would’ve expected that I would find finance so interesting!” Carbonneau said.
The course helped her better understand the value of finance in government – something she hopes to implement as a fellow for the USDA.
“Financing and funding underpin everything we do in government,” she said. “You start to look at how [agencies] are funded, at how effective the spending is, and it’ll just totally shift your perspective. That’s something that I think has been the biggest shift in my thinking and something I’m really grateful for that Price has been able to provide.”
Carbonneau said the USDA was especially interested in her time as a research assistant in the Price Center for Social Innovation.
“They were looking for someone with the program evaluation skills that I gained doing that work. Effective programs and being a good steward of public finances really go hand-in-hand,” she said.
She believes that by combining her professional and Price experiences, she’ll be able to demonstrably improve how the USDA operates.
“It is very clear to me that in the Presidential Management Program, I will be able to put things into practice that I learned,” Carbonneau said.
The chance to influence real policies on a national scale is an opportunity both Wong and Carbonneau are dedicated to taking advantage of. After all, in their experience, it’s clear that the federal government isn’t where progress is impeded, but rather where it has the greatest opportunity to flourish.