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How can you turn your passion into a career?

Serena Hohmann | CLAS Alum and MBA Student at Booth

During undergraduate studies, I developed a passion for Spanish-language literature. While studying abroad in Madrid, I spent afternoons in cafes, engrossed in novels.  It was there that I discovered the works of Julio Cortazar, Juan Jose Millas, Juan Rulfo, and Mario Vargas Llosa, and it was through this literature that I became fascinated by Latin American politics, society, and ingenuity.  The language gave me access to the Latin press, to movies, lectures, and, ultimately, to a completely new way of thinking.  A business internship exchange in Guadalajara following graduation allowed me not only to discover the warmth of Mexican culture, but also the complexity of Mexican politics.

Two years later, I undertook a Masters at the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Chicago.  The Latin American Studies program was a perfect fit.  The caliber of Mexicanist scholars at the university coupled with access to Mexico’s academic and political heavyweights offered an excellent academic experience both in area studies and public policy.  The curriculum challenged my assumptions and taught me how to tackle complex analytical questions in subjects ranging from Mexican history to Latin American development economics.   In addition, the program offered multiple opportunities to explore a variety of career paths through seminars as well as workshops on how to effectively navigate the various application processes.  Incidentally, the university has only enhanced the breadth of career options available to students in recent years (the Institute of Politics has been critical to these efforts in the public policy space).

During graduate school, the cracks in Mexico’s criminal justice and health system became glaringly apparent to me.  While nonprofits worked tirelessly to engender a cultural shift, it seemed they had little political influence and scant resources.  Exploring models to improve legal and health service delivery in Mexico became a driving question in my research and eventually the topic of my MA Thesis.

But only days before I was scheduled to travel to Oaxaca, the site of my fieldwork, riot police injured 100 A.P.P.O. protesters.  In this politically charged environment, thousands were calling for the removal of Oaxaca’s corrupt governor, including the 15 NGOS that I was scheduled to interview.  To further complicate matters, my research plan included interviews with the state officials who were the subject of the protests.

Little did I know that these events foreshadowed the focus of my public sector career: Mexican political and security analysis.  After successfully completing the research without incident (but with some great stories), I was selected as a Presidential Management Fellow (PMF), a rotational leadership development program with the Department of State.  Now I could not only communicate the severity of Mexico’s weak security institutions to senior U.S. policymakers, but also implement large-scale initiatives to transform the capacity, transparency, and integrity of the criminal justice system.

The PMF offered unforgettable opportunities.  During my tenure, I regularly composed strategic trend analyses for the Secretary of State, assessed the security threat to Americans living and working abroad, briefed the Secretary of Transportation ahead of his visit to Mexico, performed electoral monitoring, and experienced foreign-service life at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.  Fellowship rotations offered exposure to the Inter-American Development Bank and the chance to work on a policy desk, where I collaborated with 15 Mexico experts to support the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico to successfully secure his confirmation.

After the fellowship, I was offered a programmatic position with the State Department’s foreign assistance bureau, which offered a host of fascinating challenges.  Our bureau assessed ever-changing cartel dynamics and the actions of Mexican security forces.  As a program manager for the Merida Initiative, the U.S.’s one billion dollar security program with Mexico, I worked to strengthen the rule of law and bolster Mexican judicial institutions through training and tailored procurements.  Part of my job was to craft speeches for leadership to communicate U.S. drug policies to domestic and international audiences.

Hopefully, I’ve given you a snapshot of what a foreign policy career focused on Latin America can offer.  It has certainly been an amazing learning experience and a great adventure.

Please note:

The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.