Congratulations to Stephanie Arhin (MFA '17) who is the new Recruitment and Diversity Program Manager for the Federal Railroad Administration. Arhin spoke with our Graduate Admissions Coordinator Holly Mason Badra (MFA '17) about her journey.
What has your career trajectory been like post-MFA?
Post MFA, I worked as an intern with the Department of Transportation. Even though the work wasn’t initially what I wanted to be doing, I made so many connections. Then, when HR was working on their employee recognition program, they needed someone to help managers write write-ups for employees when putting them up for awards. They invited me to do a temporary assignment. They needed someone to edit the documents and they knew I had an MFA. I developed a system and took on more work and even developed trainings. I got to meet a lot of different leaders and build reputation throughout the agency. Then there was an opening for the coordinator of the internship program that I did when I was in undergrad. I really strongly believe in that program. It is the Summer Transportation Internship Program for Diverse Groups (STIPDG), it offers more than just a person coming into an office and working for 10 weeks. It provides all interns professional development and training. It pays for housing and travel, and we got paid on top of that. Because I had been through it, I knew I had ideas for different ways to improve the program. I knew I loved working with students because I enjoyed teaching as a TA (except for the grading part).
In 2021, when the program was virtual, I had the opportunity to refine the program because we had data for how it went virtually. When I realized we had a lot of extra funding because we didn’t spend it on housing, I wondered: What if we kept some of the interns throughout the academic year? And we did. I built up a reputation as someone who had ideas and went forward with them. This leads me to now. I received an email asking if I have any ideas about recruitment because the Biden administration is focused on diversity and recruitment. We took my ideas up to the Executive Director of the Federal Highway Administration. After the presentation, he asked, “What’s stopping us from doing it right now?” He asked, “Stephanie can you get this off the ground?” He said, “I think you can do it this year.”
I like recruitment and building programs. So I applied for my current position when it was posted. Because the position is brand new, I get to build the recruitment and diversity program from scratch. My official title is Recruitment and Diversity Program Manager for the Federal Railroad Administration. I am responsible for developing and evaluating policies and programs to support the Federal Railroad Administration. I also lead the Agency's diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility initiatives.
What experiences and skills did you developed in the MFA program that helped you not only to land this job but to do well within the position?
My previous team in HR was a very writing heavy team. We wrote and created presentations for everyone in the agency, many of which went to senior leadership. We also wrote a lot of policy. A part of our culture was to send each other our writing all the time and give/get feedback. We were workshopping. Coming out of the creative of writing program, I was used to workshopping and being honest with people in workshop. I was helping one of my team members prepare for a presentation (we have a good relationship) and I was like “do you think this information is necessary?” And whenever I ask that question, they already know I’m telling them to be more concise. They now value direct and clear feedback. Especially working in HR in the federal government, the way you communicate and present ideas is very important. The language you use is very important. The way we write about policy is different in changes of administration. We have to be mindful of our language and audience. Being a writing teacher in the MFA program has been helpful in my professional career. Things that are basic principles of creative writing come into play: Know your audience before you begin and then give them the context they need. As creative writers, we have to be so mindful of that as we write to make sure we connect to who we want to connect to. The things we also taught our students as teachers of Composition 101 come back to me when I’m giving a training or giving anyone feedback. Now, in my new role as a program manager I may not be giving trainings, but I’m communicating to different audiences all the time.
Is there a class (or classes) from the MFA that stand out as particularly influential?
I had a cool opportunity to do an independent study with Alan Cheuse. We did a class on “Unreliable Narrators.” He helped me design the course from scratch. I learned a lot of project management methods from my independent study with Alan. I also learned how to defend and stand by my convictions. I do that in my current role advocating for DEIA principles and ensuring our recruitment is inclusive and meaningful.
If Alan asked, “why don’t you like Lolita,” I had to back up my opinion. When you start a professional job, there’s a lot of intimidation. One-on-one meetings with THE Alan Cheuse put me in a space where I had to get over my doubts and defend my ideas.
What do you hope to accomplish in your new role?
My main goal for recruitment is to build a successful program that can sustain itself without me. I want to a build a culture for all employees to feel empowered to go out and recruit and present a brand that people are proud of sharing. I want prospective employees to say, “FRA sounds like an amazing place!” when they see us on social media or at a career fair.
My goal for the diversity program is that diversity becomes so embedded in what we do as an agency that people don’t freak out with the word “Diversity.” The word has become so polarizing. As a thought experiment, sometimes my colleagues and I think through "what else could we call diversity" if people think the word itself is a bad word. The foundations of diversity are so integral to being successful and working with other people. I want to acknowledge differences across all dimensions for all people. I want that to be inherent in our culture as an agency so it doesn’t scare people when we say we will have conversations about diversity.
As the Recruitment and Diversity Program Manager for the Federal Railroad Administration, what are you most looking forward to?
There’s so much I’m looking forward to. I’m looking forward to being a part of a movement that changes the way we hire and the way we look at our employees. What I’m doing now is starting a lot from scratch, so we are changing the culture and amplifying things we have been doing well. I’ve always wanted to own something meaningful and when I was looking for jobs before and after MFA I wanted to do something that makes an impact. It’s hard to do that straight out of school. I'm glad I have an opportunity to make a difference in a lot of people’s lives and in a meaningful way. I’m an idealist—so it's cool to have a job that has that slant.
Given that your new job means leading the agency’s DEIA initiatives, what ways do think MFA programs can work towards improvement in these areas as well?
There needs to be more conversations about DEIA in MFA programs as a whole. There needs to be a space for uncomfortable conversations, not pointing fingers, but the way the MFA is set up has not provided a lot of opportunities for marginalized people. For myself, when I was in the MFA, I was the only Black person in the program. It does matter that that was my experience. I still loved my experience and got a lot out of it. It does, however, impact the students who come into the program when they are the only marginalized individual within their identity group. Something I’m learning a lot about in my position is accessibility. It is important to think about the ways the workshop has historically restricted certain people from participating who are writers and have a lot to say. MFA programs should be changing that narrative—making clear that we do value other people with other ideas. Programs also need to understand that higher education is a luxury for a lot of people. When looking at MFA programs, I considered what fully funded programs would allow me to work and stay afloat. For a lot of people even applying is a luxury (the fee, the tech needs, all things that can be barriers to keeping the MFA from being as diverse and inclusive as it should be). People of all backgrounds write, but writing in the mainstream publishing world historically tends to come from very particular voices—the MFA programs’ current structure leads to that. So much of our culture comes from writing… people learn a lot about different people from writing. MFAs have the opportunity to change cultural conversation and scope. But only if we are addressing those issues.
Due to COVID we’ve had to face adversity in a way that cannot be ignored. Having to face a pandemic for a lot of people showed that you cannot leave your personal life at home before you come to work or come to school. You are everything you’ve experienced… you’re going to approach your work and writing from where you come from.
In one class in the MFA, I received aggressive workshop feedback for writing about my race. My identity as a writer is directly related to my identity, period. Even if I’m not writing explicitly about Black characters, they are coming from me and my experiences in the world. So much of what I have learned about the world has come from what I have read. I really see the value in what I’m writing and seeing different identities represented in writing. We have to be mindful of the backgrounds of everyone around us. Make sure we are having conversations and making meaningful connection. The goal is not to make people feel bad or guilty, but I do want people to know that the people you interact with every day, often approach work with all of this extra stuff they deal with every day. The person you are sitting with might have an invisible disability and that is okay and it’s okay to talk about it at work because it impacts their work and life. It impacts writing. I don’t feel ashamed to talk about diversity, and I’m happy to be someone to facilitate those conversations in a professional space. To make people feel safe to talk about their identities and to encourage those conversations. This should happen in the MFA, people should feel safe talking about their identities and those conversations should be encouraged.
June 24, 2022