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From Internship to Public Service Career: A HACU Success Story

Posted by Elizabeth Yepes, International Trade Specialist at USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service and Chair, USDA’s Hispanic American Cultural Effort (HACE) in Initiatives
Aug 12, 2019
Elizabeth Yepes, International Trade Specialist at USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service
Elizabeth Yepes, International Trade Specialist at USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service. Photo credit: Pedro Nieto, USDA

I never thought I could ever work in the U.S. government. One day, when I was applying for my U.S. citizenship at a local Hispanic nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., I saw a flyer about the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities’ (HACU) National Internship Program (HNIP). This seemed unbelievable for a student coming from a low-income family to know that there were paid internships that could also help me grow in my career. I was pursuing an undergraduate education at George Washington University. Being the first generation to attend college in the U.S., I often had to let go unpaid internship opportunities that could have helped my career, and instead get side jobs to pay for college.

I applied to HNIP and was accepted to an internship at USDA’s Forest Service. It was a unique and rewarding experience. I worked on environmental issues, designing a strategic and performance plan for the Air Quality Program. During my last semester of undergraduate studies, I interned at USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service at the Office of the Administrator. There, I had the opportunity to learn more about nutrition programs such as Summer Meals; Farm to School; and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). I saw the federal government’s impact on people’s lives and federal employees’ passion to ensure that low-income families had access to nutritious food. This internship experience made me certain that I wanted to work for the U.S. government.

Through the HACU internship program, I learned how to apply on USA Jobs, the different hiring programs, and how to write a federal resume that stood out. That important first step helped me get accepted into a summer Pathways Internship Program at the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS). At FAS, I learned about USDA’s international work opening markets for U.S. agriculture and enhancing food security around the world. After completing this Pathways internship, I was hired in a career position in FNS, as a program analyst in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In this role, I ensured that eligible low-income families received their food benefits by providing technical assistance to U.S. states and territories, and managed more than $15 million in grants. Hoping to return to the international field, in the evenings, I continued my graduate education at George Washington University. There I studied for a master’s degree in international affairs with concentrations in economics and development. During my last year, I conducted my graduate research on food security in India.

After two and a half years at FNS, and having completed my master’s, I returned to FAS, bringing my regulatory experience in food security and my education to contribute to the international dialogue on nutrition policy and international trade. As part of my work, I ensure that countries around the world use sound, science-based approaches to reduce noncommunicable diseases, such as obesity and diabetes, while following international standards and agreements to prevent trade barriers. I track trade issues for U.S. processed products in India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal, working closely with FAS overseas offices, agricultural industries, USDA agencies and other federal agencies to level the playing field for U.S. agricultural exports. With my interest in diversity and inclusion and my desire to mentor the next generation, I am serving as the chair of USDA’s Hispanic American Cultural Effort (HACE), an employee resource group that promotes the personal and professional development of Hispanic Americans at USDA.

As I reflect on my career trajectory, I recognize the importance that the HACU Internship Program had in my life. This experience opened the door for me to work in different areas within USDA and allowed to have a deeper understanding of how the government works and serves people in the United States and around world. I am honored to be a public servant and to be able to bring my knowledge, skills, and abilities to advance the mission of USDA.

Category/Topic: Initiatives