A new presidential administration brings with it the opportunity for the new president to select new political appointees to carry out the agenda. President Biden entered his first 100 days in office with a long to-do list, and his transition team has appointed a number of SIS alumni to key positions in his administration from the Department of Veterans Affairs to the National Security Council.
We caught up with two SIS alumni who are Biden administration appointees to discuss their career paths, their new positions, and the role their time at SIS has played in their careers.
James Anderson, Department of Veterans Affairs
James Anderson (SIS/MA ’17) was appointed to serve in the Biden administration as special assistant special assistant / deputy White House liaison in the Office of the Secretary of the US Department of Veterans Affairs. But long before his new position, Anderson showed a demonstrated interest in supporting and forming networking opportunities for veterans.
Anderson enlisted in the Air Force at 18 and served on active duty for three and a half years before transitioning to the Air Force reserves and attending undergraduate school on the GI Bill. He later returned to active duty as an Air Force intelligence officer where he last served as a staff officer at Air Forces Central Command. The difficulties he faced during that transition prompted him to pursue a veterans affairs career: “What really sparked my interest were some of the challenges I had, both from a financial standpoint and from the perspective of figuring out what I wanted to do in the future—education and career-wise. Even from a mental health standpoint, because you’re dealing with stress and with different challenges there.”
Throughout his years in the US Air Force, Anderson was selected for a number of leadership development and foreign policy fellowships as well as a Fulbright Scholarship in Canada. He emphasizes that his time at SIS helped prepare him for these opportunities, most recently with the Truman National Security Project and the Center for New American Security.
“When you are able to connect the content from the school’s ‘pracademics’—faculty who are also practitioners—and when you're able to lean on the prestige of SIS as a top-10 institution in international relations, you're able to bring that with you during these fellowships,” explains Anderson. “You don't get the imposter syndrome. You feel like you fit in.”
In his new role, Anderson works on special projects, including strategy and partner engagement. He also coordinates with interagency partners and works on some of the Department’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. He says that when he began the online Master of International Relations (MAIR) program at SIS, he had an educational background in political science but wasn’t as familiar with international relations. The school’s emphasis on both theory and practice was a boon to his education and career.
“SIS has been a huge value-add,” says Anderson. “I remember having professors who were high-level—one who was in the CIA and worked on the National Security Council staff for a while, another who headed up the OMB (Office of Management and Budget) office. And so, when I say value-add, that's what I mean. You're getting a glimpse of what this big field of international relations is.”
Kayla Williams, Department of Veteran Affairs
Kayla Williams (SIS/MA ’08), assistant secretary at the Department of Veteran Affairs’ Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs, served on active duty in the US Army from 2000 to 2005. She says that she felt invisible after transitioning out of the Army, which led to her career in veteran advocacy.
“The picture most people have of a veteran is of a man, and in some ways, that seemed to really complicate my own transition home,” says Williams. “The sense that I was invisible, and my experiences were unrecognized—that drove me to move into advocacy on behalf of military women and women veterans.”
She pursued her master’s degree in Comparative and Regional Studies (CRS) at SIS after serving in the Army, bringing a unique perspective to her graduate studies after a tour abroad: “Spending a year on the ground in Iraq made me want to understand intellectually what I was experiencing at the very tip of the spear—how did we get here? What are the geopolitical forces that are driving the US to be involved in Iraq? I wanted to intellectualize my experience.”
Williams learned from the diverse perspectives represented in her SIS program’s cohort, which included mid-career professionals like herself who had experience on the ground but less of a theoretical background and younger students who transitioned straight from their undergraduate studies. Williams explains that SIS professors were able to accommodate students with different backgrounds while still fostering an intellectually rigorous environment.
After graduating from SIS, Williams spent her career advocating for evidence-based services and policies on behalf of veterans. She most recently served as the director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. In her new position at the Department of Veterans Affairs, she oversees and coordinates all of the departments in the Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs.
“Having the opportunity to represent the voice of the enlisted personnel is really important to me, because we all do have different experiences,” says Williams. “I'm really optimistic that having a seat at the leadership table—as a prime enlisted soldier, as a woman veteran—I can bring a different perspective to discussions that are happening at those most senior levels.”
Williams says her immediate goal is to reset her office’s relationship with the press: “It will come as no surprise to anyone who watched the past four years that the prior administration was not known for having a warm and collaborative relationship with the news media. My fundamental goal walking in was to reset and transform our relationship with the press to be one that is more transparent and forthcoming. I believe very firmly that the media plays an important role in our democracy and the oversight that the taxpayer and American people deserve in what any government agency is doing.”
Learn more about applying for MAIR, CRS, and other SIS master’s programs.