Career Conversations: Kevin Clifford ’12
St. Olaf College alumnus Kevin Clifford ’12 is the digital content officer for The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, where he produces informative and compelling content for the Council’s website, blogs, social media, and email campaigns.
As part of the Career Conversations series, which highlights the paths Oles take after college, Kevin sat down for a conversation with Piper Center for Vocation and Career Associate Director of Alumni Career Services Jenele Grassle.
Kevin, you were very involved while at St. Olaf, from the Leaders for Social Change program to The Great Conversation to Model United Nations. Looking back, how have these experiences shaped you?
I like to say that my education taught me how to learn. All of the experiences you mentioned facilitated that. The Great Conversation, especially, honed my writing ability and oral communication skills. Working with the Northfield Community Action Center and living in an Honor House my senior year inculcated an affinity for service and volunteering. And I took this interest with me when I left the Hill. Model UN and the awesome political science classes I took at St. Olaf, including international relations with Professor Lott, got me interested in international politics and foreign affairs. I remain engaged in these discussions today. That all started at St. Olaf.
You have worked in two very different organizations: 1) OgilvyOne Worldwide, a large, well-known marketing agency, and 2) The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight and influences public discourse on critical global issues. Tell us about this evolution. What motivated you and what skills did you gain from these experiences?
I had worked and volunteered in a number of small organizations before Ogilvy, but this was my first experience with a large company. It was a big adjustment for me, learning the corporate jargon and how an agency operates. It was a relatively short stint for me, as I left to move to the Council after about 10 months. It was enough time, however, to compare and contrast the pros and cons of working in a big company, where you have a lot of support, teammates, and corporate structure, with a smaller nonprofit like the Council, which requires you to wear a lot of different hats. What I like about the smaller organization is that it has allowed me to gain skills that I may not have gained in a larger organization. I’ve been able to explore things I’m interested in and develop skills through diverse experiences that I might have been denied in a larger, more specialized organization.
Can you tell us a bit more about The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which is considered to be a think tank. What is it like to work in this environment?
We are a membership-supported public education organization that informs the public on global issues. We hold over 100 public programs each year, bringing in heads of state, members of the government, journalists, heads of NGOs, and everyone in between. They discuss issues ranging from national security to trade to global agriculture to women’s health. We also have a stable of experts who write reports and do research that we distribute through various media outlets and news vehicles. We operate almost like a college in some ways, but without students. Our mission is nonpartisan. We are independent and believe that open dialogue and open societies are essentially good.
I understand that, about a year after your graduation from St. Olaf, you attended Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, where you received a master’s degree in journalism. Tell us about this decision. Was this always the plan?
I really didn’t have much of a plan. I don’t know if that’s a great answer, but when I left St. Olaf, I worked with Lutheran Volunteer Corps in Wilmington, Delaware, and it was a very formative experience. I was working for a nonprofit that helps low-income and homeless members of Wilmington, a community with a disproportionately large homeless population. In this environment, I developed an understanding of the power of storytelling. I was writing newsletters and developing feature stories on the people we served to raise money for the organization. I thought, “Maybe I can make a career out of telling people’s stories.” So I applied to journalism schools. When I was accepted to Medill at Northwestern, I first thought that it was a mistake! It seemed like a sign, like the right next step.
What advice would you have for someone considering graduate school?
I always advise students and other alumni who ask me about graduate school to take a gap year. I think this is huge. It was evident at Northwestern when a student had gone right from undergraduate to graduate school. There was a clear difference in maturity, an understanding that someone was not taking care of all of your needs anymore. You have to find an apartment, manage a budget, shop for your food and prepare it. You have to get around the city. Having the year in Wilmington prepared me for graduate school.
I would also encourage looking into part-time graduate school programs, allowing you to keep working and earning money while getting your advanced degree. Also, I see more and more organizations including tuition reimbursement in their benefit plans.
How have the connections you made at St. Olaf influenced you and your career?
Not to be too specific, but I think it was the Piper Center’s Washington, D.C. Connections trip during my senior year that got me interested in Lutheran Volunteer Corps (LVC). And LVC got this whole train moving. So I can thank that Connections trip for setting my career in motion.
Whenever I move to a new city, I try to find other alumni. I feel as if the St. Olaf “community thing” that is talked about a lot really does exist! I’ve always felt supported. You never know where your connections can take you. You may find someone who works at a company that interests you. It never hurts to reach out.
What’s next on your horizon?
Recently, I was commissioned as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve. It is like a second life in some ways. It’s exciting and challenging. I am really looking forward to where it is going to take me.
What do you wish you could tell your 22-year-old self?
Don’t be afraid to do a total 180 degree turn in your career journey. Travel to different countries if you can, pick up a second language. That is something I wish I had done. I wish I had lived in Mexico or South America and become fluent in Spanish. You can even attend graduate school in another country.
We know that relationships are important for personal and professional growth. How do you build and maintain your network?
You reach out to people. It has never been easier to find other alumni, whether on LinkedIn or on Facebook. Tap into the alumni network that exists, especially in bigger cities. Join an alumni steering committee or attend a meeting. Volunteer with other Oles on the St. Olaf Day of Service.
What is the best career advice you ever received?
I remember once being told to find a skill or an area of expertise that is unfilled or lacking in your organization and fill it! Be the “go to” person or expert in that area. It may not be in your job description, but if you see that your company needs someone to fill a specific need, do it, take the reins. More often than not, it is going to impress someone, get you noticed, and be good for you.
If you’d like to read more stories from our Career Conversations series, check out our Alumni Career Services program.