Monica Thammarath

Education Policy Expert

Location: Washington, DC

"There have been many instances when I wanted to pack up and leave. But then I remind myself that it’s not about me; it’s about all the girls that I work for."

If you asked me what I thought I’d be doing after college, moving from California to Washington, DC to work on federal education policy wouldn’t have been my answer. If you told me that four years later, I’d still be in DC working to connect the labor movement to civil rights and community organizations, I would have said you were crazy.

In college, I was the student who had her entire four years planned out, written neatly on color-coded Post-it notes outlining the graduation requirements for two majors and a minor, plus a year studying abroad, with the eight semesters and three summers that I would need to complete them.

Unfortunately, my Post-its ended at “Spring 2008” and I didn’t have a plan for job hunting during the economic downturn.

I wanted to get hired on full-time at the organization where I worked during college. I ran an after-school leadership development program for Southeast Asian American girls in Oakland who were at-risk of being sexually exploited. Unfortunately, the organization wouldn’t know until the fall whether it would have the budget to hire me.

I thought about moving back home since my parents were tired of their youngest daughter being away, but I was accepted into an unpaid summer internship program at an Asian American civil rights organization in DC. While moving back home was the easier of the two options, I wasn’t sure when I would ever get a chance to live and work in our nation’s capital again.

I decided to make the move. It was just for three months, I told myself. How hard could it be?

Well, it was hard, professionally and personally. To me, federal policy was so disconnected from the issues faced by local communities. Instead of working together, it seemed like everyone was competing against each other. People talked a lot about how things should be, but didn’t seem to know how things actually were. On top of that, being a young, Asian American woman didn’t make anything easier. I just wanted to go home and do what I knew I did well: run programs for girls so they could achieve their full potential.

Then I realized that no matter how many girls I worked with, some of them would never have the opportunities to succeed unless the policies at the federal level reflected their needs. And those policies would never change unless people like me--people who personally understood the needs of those most impacted--were at the table to make their needs known.

I’ve been in DC for almost five years and there have been many instances when I wanted to pack up and leave. But in those moments, I remind myself that it’s not about me and how frustrated I get. It’s about all the girls that I used to work for and all those opportunities I got to take advantage of that they didn’t have access to. It’s about something bigger than me.