ProFellow Dr. Vicki Johnson first spoke with Ashlyn Holeyfield five years ago when she was completing the Congressional Fellowship on Women and Public Policy in Washington, D.C. Since then, Ashlyn has completed a second fellowship and launched her career as an international trade specialist.
Dr. Johnson caught up with Ashlyn to learn more about how the Congressional Fellowship, which gives young leaders the opportunity to work in a congressional office on Capitol Hill, gave Ashlyn the skills to jump-start and excel in her career. Watch the full exchange above, or read on for a condensed transcript of the conversation!
Dr. Vicki Johnson:
Hello, everyone. I’m really pleased to speak with you today. This is Dr. Vicki Johnson, founder and director at ProFellow. And today I have the opportunity to interview for a second time Ashlyn Holeyfield, who we connected with back in 2015 when she was on the Congressional Fellowship on Women and Public Policy. When we interviewed Ashlyn back then she was already a rising star in her field, and now here we are in 2022. We wanted to reconnect with you to learn more about what you’re working on now and where did that initial fellowship lead you. So Ashlyn, let me give a little bio for you first.
Ashlyn Holeyfield is a senior international trade specialist in the Office of Trade Agreements Negotiations and Compliance at the International Trade Administration, which is part of the United States Department of Commerce. She’s responsible for investigating foreign government policies and analyzing relevant international trade agreements, including the World Trade Organization and US Free Trade Agreements to determine whether foreign governments are properly complying with the agreement obligations they have undertaken.
Ashlyn’s experience includes WTO, e-commerce working group, the WTO customs valuation agreement, and the WTO Trade Facilitation agreement. That’s a lot of big words. So you’re smarter than I am! Ashlyn graduated from Hendrix College with her undergraduate degree in international relations and earned her master’s in public policy from American University in Washington, D.C. And you’ve also since we last talked, completed the Presidential Management Fellowship in 2018. So Ashlyn, tell me, since we last spoke in 2015, when you first told me about your experience with the Congressional Fellowships on Women and Public Policy, can you remind our readers what that fellowship experience was like for you and some of the concrete skills and networks you gained from that program?
What was your experience like on the Congressional Fellowship on Women and Public Policy?
The Women and Public Policy Fellowship was a truly great opportunity. I’m still very close with the fellows of my class, as well as the fellows across classes. It provides master’s graduates the opportunity to actually join a congressional office staff for about a six-month period. I joined the educational workforce committee under the minority leader at that time, Congressman Bobby Scott, and I got to work on education policy, particularly working on the reauthorization of a particular piece of legislation that was really important.
I loved it. I think what you learn on the Hill is that every day is different. It’s very fast-paced, but you really have to know how to explain complicated policy in everyday terms and not use a lot of government jargon, which has been important later on in my career. You also learn how to write well, but also write quickly and really express your viewpoint in a way that someone who’s not necessarily an expert in the field can also understand and grasp the significance of the policy moving forward. So the Women and Public Policy Fellowship was a great opportunity because I also got to meet and network with a lot of exciting women across DC in various fields, and it really allowed me to see what future careers would be possible after working on the Hill just by the variety of people that I met who graciously shared their experience with some of the new fellows.
Dr. Vicki Johnson:
That’s wonderful. And just so people know, this is a fellowship that’s offered annually, so you can find it on ProFellow. Definitely check it out! Now, since you completed that fellowship, what are some of the other fellowships and professional experiences you’ve had since then? And how did that original fellowship prepare you to get those jobs in the political realm and succeed in them?
How did the Congressional Fellowship on Women and Public Policy prepare you for political jobs and additional fellowships?
That’s a great question! After I completed my Women and Public Policy Fellowship, I actually applied for the Presidential Management Fellowship. Being on the Hill, getting to see the executive branch and the different government agencies was really important to me. I discovered that I wanted to make an impact, not on a state or a local level or even a national level, but internationally. I think that was really important for me to realize.
It was also important for me to be exposed to the breadth of work across the federal workforce. Something that was great about the Women and Public Policy Fellowship is that it wasn’t just government nerds. There were people from different fields, like scientists, social workers, etc. coming to the Hill and learning about how we make policy at the federal level. That was really important exposure for me to figure out that I really wanted to start working at the US Small Business Administration, and then I really wanted to move into international trade policy at the US Department of Commerce. So I think without that broad exposure, I would not have understood the opportunities that have been available to me through the Presidential Management Fellowship and continuing in federal service.
The Presidential Management Fellowship was also a wonderful opportunity. I highly recommend it to anyone graduating from a master’s program. You can apply even two years after you graduate from your master’s program. It was a great way to begin federal service coming in with a cohort of very motivated other students in my class at the US Small Business Administration. I really got to take a lot of leadership development opportunities through that program and expand my work portfolio, including managing different projects, doing program evaluations, and even traveling the country meeting US small businesses.
From there, I actually moved over to the US Department of Commerce in the role that I’m in right now with the Office of Trade Agreements, Negotiations, and Compliance. And it was a really great starting point. I found my home in the federal government and my passion for working on trade policy. Since then, I’ve been able to go to international organizations and participate in meetings as a USG delegate, such as the World Trade Organization and the World Customs Organization. I’ve also gotten to train foreign governments on how they can comply with their trade agreement obligations. And I work daily with US exporters to make sure that they receive the full benefit of trade agreements that we negotiated around the world. So it’s really been an exciting time for me that really started with learning about all of those opportunities during my Women in Congressional Policy Fellowship, as well as the Presidential Management Fellowship.
Dr. Vicki Johnson:
That’s incredible. And it sounds like you really enjoy your current job. You’re really thriving there! Tell us a little bit more about your current role. What do you do day-to-day? What do you like about it? You could even tell us what you don’t like about it. We’d be interested to know.
What do you do in your role at the International Trade Administration?
Something I think is interesting, especially working on the Hill, is people talk about the pace, that it’s really fast-paced, that there’s something new every day. There’s always something that you’re learning. And I think that that’s really true in my current role. Every day is different for me. There’s always a new policy that some government is trying to implement or is thinking about implementing that I have to review and look at. Or I’m talking to businesses every day. Those could be small businesses that have one export that’s stuck at a border overseas, or that could be really large companies, multinational corporations. So the variety is something that I really thrive on and enjoy, but also I’ve really enjoyed not just being a generalist, but being an expert.
This opportunity has really allowed me to get pretty deep into customs policy and think about how not only our custom system functions but how the world trading system functions and what we can do to make that better. Also just getting to write every day. I develop talking points, do bilateral meetings with different foreign governments, and do a lot of research and analysis that I think my master’s program, as well as my previous opportunities and fellowships, really prepared me to do on a daily basis and kind of use all of those skills into a good analysis, a good talking point, even if it’s just a sentence long. And really being able to prepare my principles and leadership to have these engagements with foreign countries and really to advocate on behalf of US industry.
Dr. Vicki Johnson:
That’s wonderful. I have another question for you. In your last interview when we spoke in 2015, you spoke about the sisterhood of professional women that your fellowship connected you with. Do you and this group of women continue to support and inspire each other even now that you’re later in your career?
How did the Congressional Fellowship on Women and Public Policy cultivate your network of professional women?
Yes. We are very active, which has been such a blessing, especially during the last couple of years to still stay connected with them. And really, I think what’s been special about it is that as someone coming into the fellowship, kind of at the beginning of their career can see folks who are 20 years down the road, or even 5 years down the road. And I think seeing that variety and having that opportunity to ask questions has really been helpful in allowing me to navigate my career path and also understand where I am. I can ask some of my colleagues or peers in this group, “How do you do this specific thing as you’re just starting off?” As we have also progressed in our careers, the conversations have really changed to topics like, “How can I negotiate this? How do I apply for this job? How do I begin taking on managerial responsibilities?” The opportunity to see where these women have landed and also the different directions of their career paths has been really interesting. It has certainly been helpful to not just be surrounded by peers or someone who has made it 20 years down the road, but also to meet people who are very motivated and driven to keep progressing and are trying to add different skills to their careers. I’ve really enjoyed that.
Dr. Vicki Johnson:
I can definitely appreciate that because the networks that you build are valuable many, many years beyond the fellowships. I appreciate that you’ve also made the effort to keep it in touch and really utilize the network, which is something I always tell applicants to keep in mind too. Speaking of applicants, now you’ve done two fellowships. I wanted to ask about your application tips since you have a lot of wisdom about these processes. Starting with the Congressional Fellowships on Women and Public Policy, what tips would you give to any early-career aspiring applicants for that award?
What application tips do you have for people applying to the Congressional Fellowships on Women and Public Policy?
I think you need to have a passion for learning how government does business. I think what’s great about the Women and Public Policy Fellowship is that it’s exposing you to the process. It’s giving you that knowledge base of how legislation is made, how people can actually call their congressional member or their Senator and influence the public policy process, and how information is distributed. And it really takes all different career fields and experts for that. So I would just encourage you, if you are thinking about or curious, there’s really a lot that can be gained from that experience. And it doesn’t necessarily have to lead to working for a congressional member, or working for a Senator or lobbyist. I think the skills and knowledge you gain from the experience is really useful in all different sorts of careers, even if you want to go and be a public health advocate. Just understanding how those laws affect your daily life is really important.
So for that fellowship, I would just encourage you to definitely take the chance to think about it. I moved from Arkansas to DC and this fellowship provided me the opportunity to financially be able to work for a member of Congress in a committee, which was an experience that I had not been able to do previously. So it’s definitely a great opportunity. I would just encourage you to apply and get the process started!
Dr. Vicki Johnson:
Wonderful. And the Presidential Management Fellowship that you did after your master’s, that one has a more cryptic application process. (The application process is described in-depth by Former Presidental Management Fellow Miriam Kochman in this ProFellow article!) What application tips would you give to those who were considering that program as well?
What application tips do you have for people applying to the Presidential Management Fellowship?
I would say try to have a good understanding of the application process. I was able to go through a preparatory program through my school, American University, which was incredibly helpful. But I would also just say that you really need to answer the questions as yourself. I actually took the test two times. The first time I definitely had some kind of like, oh, should I do this? Or should I do this? Are they trying to trick me? And I didn’t get in my first time. My second time that I took my test, I just followed my gut and it worked out. I made it to the interviews stage, and what they’re looking for at the interview stage is can you collaborate with others? That’s something that’s so essential to my daily job as a federal government employee, is really, can you work with others? Can you advocate for your role in sort of the federal bureaucracy, can you provide your piece of it? And then there are all of these other people who are providing their pieces and you have to come together and work it out to get to a final product. So if you do have the opportunity to go through a preparatory program through your school, those are very helpful. I think the more you know going into the process, the better you will do. But if you don’t, answer the questions definitely as yourself.
Dr. Vicki Johnson:
Thank you so much for your tips. We really appreciate it. And I want to thank you for your time, for working with us, and for sharing your experience. Maybe we’ll connect again in another five years and see where your career takes you. And who knows! There may be even more fellowships in your future. So thank you, Ashlyn. Are there any final thoughts you want to share with the ProFellow audience of fellowship seekers?
I would just say I’m so grateful for the opportunities that I’ve had and the people that I’ve met in my fellowships. They’ve meant a lot to me, and I think that it’s important that these opportunities exist. So I try to give them credit whenever I can because they really did give me a good start in DC. I’m very appreciative of that.
Dr. Vicki Johnson:
I agree. Thank you so much, Ashlyn. And like I said, maybe we’ll be in touch again in another five years. Thank you so much for your time.
Looking forward to it. Thank you.
Ashlyn Holeyfield is a senior international trade specialist in the Office of Trade Agreements Negotiations and Compliance at the International Trade Administration, which is part of the United States Department of Commerce. Ashlyn graduated from Hendrix College with her undergraduate degree in international relations, and earned her masters in public policy from American University in Washington, D.C.
Seeking more opportunities for women leaders? Check out our list of 30 Fellowships for Women Leaders, Scholars, Scientists and Students.
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