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Alvarado wants to learn as much as she can in Washington D.C. and then bring all that knowledge back to New York City, her hometown. In the future, she has the goal to run for office. Photo credit: Alicia Santistevan.

The youngest director at the Pentagon is a Latina

After Elsa Alvarado worked on the 2020 Democratic campaign, she was offered a position at the Department of Defense.

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In her first class as an undergraduate student at Middlebury College, in Vermont, Elsa Alvarado was the only one to bring a notebook to class. All her classmates brought their brand new Macbooks instead. 

Trying to fit in, on the second day, Alvarado brought her laptop — a loud and thick old Toshiba laptop her dad had given her. “It didn’t matter what I did, I still felt different,” she said. 

Born and raised in Queens, New York City, and used to all the diversity of a big city; when Alvarado moved to Vermont to attend College, in a predominantly white state and institution; it was the first, but certainly not the last time she had to learn to adapt.  

After working in the 2020 presidential election, Alvarado was appointed by President Biden as one of the youngest political appointees to work at the Pentagon, at the age of 24.

She has been working as the Director of Strategic Communications for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs for almost a year and a half now; where she is often the only woman, Latina, and the youngest person in the room. Once again, she had to adjust and be comfortable with herself just like in Vermont. 

“Just like everyone else, I was hired by the President for a reason,” she said. “My age or where I am from doesn’t matter.”

Full of opinions, she always makes sure to share her thoughts in meetings. She likes to say that, when thinking about a leader, people think about the qualities they have — outspoken, confident, helpful and trustful. Age, gender and ethnicity don’t make anyone less of a leader.    

HER WAY INTO THE PENTAGON 

After a Master’s program in China, through the prestigious fellowship Schwarzman Scholars, Alvarado found herself without a secure job after graduation. She describes herself as someone who always needs to know what’s coming next; her plan was to land a job right after the program ended, but because it was the peak of the pandemic and finding a job was a challenge, this was the first time Alvarado found herself having no idea what was next. 

She applied to various places to do U.S.-China relations research, but was rejected by most think tanks. What seemed like a nightmare at the time ended up being one of the greatest things that could have happened in Alvarado’s life.

Passionate about politics and looking for something to keep her motivated through those hard times, Alvarado decided to join Joe Biden’s presidential campaign in the 2020 election. It was something she had always wanted to do, and regardless of who was nominated by the Democratic Party, she just wanted to help.

Not caring about the pay or position, she applied to every job on the campaign, and was selected to work as a Vetting Analyst where she primarily vetted for the now First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden. Alvarado did background research on all the events and people Dr. Biden would attend and meet, aiming to avoid scandals and confirm they had similar values. She worked with a small team, but all of the people there were passionate about their work and committed to winning the election. 

After Joe’s Biden victory, Alvarado joined the 59 th Presidential Inaugural Committee as a Senior Vetting Analyst. While planning the inauguration, she was asked what she would like to do in the Biden Administration, if possible. Interested in foreign policy, she didn't expect to actually hear back with a job offer. To her surprise, she not only received a call, but it was for a position she didn’t even know of — which she is now happily working.

She learned quickly and fell in love with the position and is committed to making others feel the same. At the Pentagon, she voluntarily runs an internship program that brings new college students to the Pentagon to experience working at one of the country’s most important institutions.

CHANGING CAREERS AND FINDING HERSELF 

Although a successful woman at the Pentagon now, this wasn’t Alvarado's original life plan. After graduating college, she worked for a year at a law firm — until then, her aspirations were to become a lawyer. After a month working there, she realized that corporate law was not suited for her. According to her, the smartest people she knew were at that law firm, but their opinions and thoughts were rarely listened to because the firm’s partners would decide how the case proceeded.

“I could never work in a place where my opinion doesn’t matter,” she said.  

In search of new experiences after her recent realization, Alvarado applied to a fully paid global affairs master’s program scholarship in China; which would completely change her career.  

“You have to take risks and not be afraid to change the plan that you initially had,” she said.  

The Schwarzman Scholars program brings students from all over the world to study at Tsinghua University, in Beijing. Around thirty Americans are selected every year, and Alvarado commented on the lack of diversity between the Americans who were going in prior cohorts. She was committed to representing the Latino American community abroad.  

Selected and open to new experiences, Alvarado moved to China without speaking Chinese. Her family made the effort to save money so her dad could go to Beijing — for only three days, considering the fact that getting there already takes 1 day — just to help her move.   

Understanding the significance of being able to do a Master's without having to pay for it, Alvarado focused on academics. After the whole experience and writing a thesis on U.S.-China relations with an advisor from Harvard University, she knew she wanted to do something related to foreign policy — leading her into this new career path she didn’t even know existed.  

Her time in China wasn’t just amazing because of the learning experience, but other components contributed to making those years unforgettable. Before moving, Alvarado thought she would spend the majority of the time with the other American students, but upon arriving there she had a happy surprise. She hung out with Latinos from Latin America and spoke more Spanish than Mandarin, she said. Connected to her heritage like never before, Alvarado was never judged for being born in NYC. For the students coming from Latin America, if her parents were from Nicaragua, she was a Latina too. 

“We shared that cultural value of friendship by helping each other in the Latino community,” she added.  

A FIRST IN THE FAMILY TO ATTEND COLLEGE 

Alvarado didn’t have the money to visit the colleges she was applying to, and ended up deciding to attend Middlebury College because it was the one that offered her the most financial aid. Her first time on campus was actually the day she moved in for her freshman year. Neither her or her parents had ever been to Vermont before, and her first semester was all about adaptation. 

Alvarado grew up in a Queens neighborhood with a diverse group of people from many different countries. “Where are your parents from?” was a common question back home for her. At Middlebury, it was the opposite. Her classmates' families have been in the U.S. for generations, and Alvarado said she could notice the socioeconomic differences in the school. 

During the first weeks at Middlebury, she was desperate to go back home, even if it was just for a weekend. In need of a free ride to the Big Apple, Alvarado joined a group of students who were going to a protest in NYC, which she didn’t even attend. She just needed to feel “normal” for a few days.  

As a first generation student, it took her a couple of months to adjust to college. She relied on professors and her family, especially her mom, who she would call multiple times a day for support. Once she finally felt comfortable with herself, she fell in love with the classes, professors and campus. To this day, some of her best friends are from Middlebury. 

“Your old Toshiba laptop doesn’t matter when you are answering the questions correctly and writing amazing papers,” she said. “I needed to be confident with myself to be able to share my identity.”   

Because of the economic circumstances of her family, Alvarado always relied on scholarships to attend college. Since high school, she applied to as many as she could, getting all of them. One that had a huge impact on her life was the Hispanic Scholarship Fund scholarship she earned in 2014.  

As a freshman in college, she was invited through the scholarship to attend the National Leadership Conference with 100 of the best Latino students in the country. She flew across the country to California, with everything paid, to network and attend professional workshops on how to navigate in the professional world. 

A couple of years later and with many new experiences, Alvarado keeps attending this and other conferences and events held by Hispanic Scholarship Fund, but now as a mentor. Aiming to create a network of people who help each other, she recently joined the Hispanic Scholarship Fund Advisory Council in Washington D.C.

“I think the Hispanic Scholarship Fund is looking for leaders, and being a leader can mean different things,” she said. “It can mean being involved in your community, helping out with community centers, schools or in your family.”

Alvarado attributes a great part of her success now to those scholarships she got. They crucially prepared her to be where she is today. For her, it was meaningful to know that there were people in the community cheering for her success.  

Although grateful for all the people who helped her, Alvarado’s most important support system throughout the years came from home. Her parents always advised her to pursue her passion and give her best, because success would eventually come. When they found out about her job at the Pentagon, they were beyond proud.  

“That's everything they [her parents] could have asked for,” Alvarado said. “Not only for me to have a great position, but for me to be happy in a great position.” 


 

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