Presidential Management Fellows Program Trains Future Government Leaders

GW has a long history of sending recent advanced-degree graduates to program established by executive order in 1977.

August 2, 2022

Woman sitting at desk with flags in the background

Kalpana Vissa, B.S. '18, M.P.H. '20, turned her two-year Presidential Management Fellowship into a full-time job with the HHS Office of Inspector General. (Contributed photo)

By Nick Erickson

Seeing a nation increasingly divided over a boiling energy crisis, the Cold War, racial unrest and the lingering aftermaths of the Vietnam War and Watergate, President Jimmy Carter established the Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) program via executive order in 1977 to train future government leaders driven by service instead of power and partisanship.

That need is just as great 45 years later, and George Washington University continues its contributions to the PMF program by sending to the field advanced degree graduates inspired more by solving challenges than career promotion.

Fellows are appointed to a two-year commitment to a government agency and receive 160 hours of formal interactive training and at least one four-to-six-month developmental assignment, in addition to salary and benefits. Located closer to federal government institutions than any other school in the country, GW has a long history of answering the call and delivering civil servant minded graduates to the nation’s most distinctive policymaking offices.

“The strength of GW representation in the PMF program is testimony to the university's public service ethos,” said Jim Wylde, Career and Graduate Student Services director at the Elliott School of International Affairs. “We see PMF as an ideal pathway for our graduates, as it gives them the opportunity to hone their leadership skills and make a difference.”

This year’s application deadline opens at noon on Tuesday, Sept. 13 and closes Tuesday, Sept. 27.

Fellows are selected based on their commitment to civic engagement and leadership potential, and GW grads fit the bill. Kalpana Vissa, B.S. ’18, M.P.H. ’20, for example, worked and volunteered at nursing homes in her hometown of Fort Collins, Colorado. Those experiences sparked a passion for patient advocacy and primary health care.

As a PMF, she has worked at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General investigating fraud, waste and abuse of all HHS programs. Also an adjunct professor at the GW School of Medicine and Health Science’s Department of Clinical Research and Leadership, Vissa sees government as a powerful way to carry out the impact of service work, and it’s come full circle for her. Her two-year appointment ended in June, but she stayed on full time with the HHS Office of Inspector General working alongside senior leadership to establish the agency’s long-term nursing home oversight work.

“I feel so humbled to take something that was such an important part of my life and have it be the work that I'm doing at a policy level,” said Vissa, who was the chair of GW’s Committee on Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, a graduate student representative on GW’s Board of Trustees and a GW Presidential Fellow

Miranda Sieg, M.A. ’20, wasn’t so sure she wanted to pursue government work but applied for the PMF program only after someone recommended it to her. Like Vissa, she had a knack for serving—at a young age, she’d insert herself in playground fights to help the kids being bullied.

While studying security and development, conflict resolution, countering violent terrorism and stabilization and peacebuilding at GW, Sieg also served as an Alumni Relations assistant and program coordinator in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development.

She believes a capstone project focusing on the semiconductor supply chain transition from China to Vietnam helped her land her appointment at the U.S. Department of Commerce. She mainly focuses on China for entities suspected of violating export controls.

Despite polarization in U.S. politics, Sieg has been encouraged to find such fulfilling work no matter which party has majority.

“I think when going into government, it's important to know that you can deal with and still work under and still appreciate parts of your job under different administrations with different priorities or go into a job family or a department that you believe in the mission enough,” Sieg said.

Meghna Murali, M.P.H ’18, has wholeheartedly believed in her mission while working as a fellow the past two years as a management and program analyst for FEMA.

Originally wanting to pursue medicine after undergrad, she realized while working clinical research positions at Children’s National Hospital that she would rather be in the field helping vulnerable and underrepresented populations. She did just that in her PMF field rotation, where she worked at a COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Philadelphia.

Working alongside a wide range of people, including members from all military branches, Murali was taken aback—in a positive way—at how sectors of people can come together in crisis.

“It was just one of those moments where you had staff at varying leadership levels directing foot traffic, and no one really cared what your job was,” Murali said.

The PMF rotations can indeed come with their fair share of thrilling experiences. While rotating with the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, Vissa scored a photo with First Lady Jill Biden at the 2021 White House Holiday Tour. Sieg, who spent five months working as an Australia desk officer at the State Department, wrote talking points and joint statements at a conference where she sat behind Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs Marise Payne.

But no matter who they bump elbows with, fellows understand they serve people who both share and differ from their own views. They are motivated by steering a polarized nation back to its representative intentions and to be a government—as Abraham Lincoln famously championed for—of the people, by the people and for the people.

“We know that our graduates are entering a highly polarized national scene and a volatile global environment,” Wylde said. “PMF is a hopeful reminder that, despite the challenges of the current era, our country is steadily building an excellent talent bench for the future."