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Be Your Own Advocate

It was October 21, 2016. A shared Uber ride to Howard University’s Homecoming (my undergrad alma mater). It had been six months since I graduated, with no serious job prospects in sight. So dire that I could no longer afford to stay in Austin (where I went to law school) and had to move back to New York with my parents. I know many of us have been there, especially in the tough post-law school job market. Eventually, I would start a Staff Assistant job at an internationally revered NGO in a week, so I was grateful, but I knew I could and should be doing more with myself.

So how did a chance encounter in an Uber pool lead to a prestigious two-year Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF) with the Federal government, and later serving as acting General Counsel for a federal government agency? The power of positive self-talk and using that to effectively advocate for myself.

People who know me know that I’m very talkative in only two scenarios: if I feel totally comfortable with you, or if you’re a complete stranger. In true Nina-Belle fashion, I found myself talking to my co-passenger about my passion for international relations, being a recent law school graduate, and the career plans I envisioned for myself. As luck (or destiny) would have it, my co-passenger worked at the U.S. Agency for International Development, had graduated from PMF, and was interested in recruiting more women of color as Fellows. Unfortunately, by this time in my career, I consumed myself with negative thoughts, but something in my gut told me this was a crucial moment in my life, and it was time for me to shift my thinking. So even if I had to fake it for now, I told myself I would leave my Uber co-passenger feeling like I was the best applicant the Fellowship would receive this year. We kept in touch, but I didn’t think much of it until it was time to submit my application in late November 2016.

Fast forward to November 2016. Bar results were in and I was working at the UN for over a month. Although I passed the bar, it was clear that I was an assistant and would primarily have administrative duties. My days primarily consisted of printing/making copies, organizing files, submitting visa applications on behalf of my supervisors, and booking travel accommodations. Certainly not anything I envisioned for myself, and duties I hadn’t performed on a regular basis since my first job in high school. Add the fact that I was not getting any traction with practicing attorney skills. The whole situation created a lot of space for negative thinking, anger, and hopelessness. By the time I was ready to submit my PMF application, I thought to myself, “Why am I even wasting my time? Who would want someone in my situation as part of their Fellowship, or working at their agency?” However, I pressed forward, inspired by an article I read about positive self-talk. The article stated that positive self-talk is about recognizing the truth, in situations and in yourself. I had to remind myself that despite my current situation, the truth is that I worked very hard in law school, was actively involved, was intelligent, and had a lot of experience to offer in the international affairs community. All of this was true and the office managing the Fellowship would realize that as well. In January 2017, I was selected as a finalist, and it was up to me to “match” with an agency that would host me during the fellowship.

Once again, positive self-talk and thinking led me to my current agency, which I love. While looking for possible agencies, I came across a job description for a little-known agency focused on grassroots, people-led development assistance in Africa. Community-led development and African socioeconomic growth have always been passions of mine, so I figured this would be the perfect place to work. The problem? There was only one position available that I had minimal qualifications for. My initial thought, once again was why waste my time applying? Then I reminded myself that I had the passion required for the agency, and if I could get this job, I could probably impress the lawyers and transition to their office permanently after the fellowship.

A couple weeks after submitting my application, I get a call from the General Counsel saying that although I didn’t have the experience for the position I applied for, I would be a great fit for a Junior Attorney position. She wanted me to come and talk to her about what I’ve been doing and what I would bring to the table. Preparing for that meeting was one of the most nerve-wracking moments of my life. All the negative thoughts and doubts rushed in: how could I discuss what I had been doing post-graduation, and still seem impressive? Ultimately, it all boiled down to recognizing the truth about myself – that yes, I had hit a roadblock starting my legal career, but I had all she would be looking for in a Junior Attorney. Additionally, I could provide unique insight as a first-generation African living in America, which at the time was (ironically) a rare staff profile for the agency. I ended up getting the job, an ENTIRE YEAR after graduating from law school, and had to do a lot of that same positive thinking and self-motivation to prepare myself to finally practice law after the hiatus. To date, I’ve had a great experience with the agency, so much so that when the General Counsel recently retired, she informed our leadership that she fully trusted me with taking over her position!

To sum it up, never underestimate the power of the mind and of how you speak to yourself. If you take anything from this article, please let it be these two things. First, obstacles and mistakes happen, whether caused by us or outside of our control (or a mix of both). Embrace them, learn the lessons, but don’t let them consume you. Second, counteract negative thinking with positive truths about yourself and what makes you great, and how those truths can lead you to where you want to be. I honestly don’t know where I would be without keeping to that mindset.

~ Nina-Belle

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