Learning to Embrace Mentoring and Networking

Welcome to SIS Voices, an ongoing series in which SIS alumni from historically underrepresented backgrounds share their experiences working in international affairs and offer some advice to current and future students who may also find themselves in the minority in their classes and professional spaces. These alumni work in varied fields, and they share a belief that the surest way to realize the SIS vision of “waging peace” is to include all voices in the discussion.

In this edition of SIS Voices, we’re engaging with Ricardo Sanchez, SIS/MIS ’19. Ricardo is currently People Business Resource Group (PBRG) Global Lead for the Veterans Community Network (VCN) at Bristol Myers Squibb.

What sparked your interest in international affairs?
I was brought to the United States from Cali, Colombia, when I was five years old and moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey. After high school, I joined the Marine Corps, where I served for seven years. I worked as a Marine Security Guard for three years. My posts were in the Congo, Portugal, and Pakistan.

I did my education at Rutgers University for undergrad, and then I came to my graduate program at AU after that. I was a double major at Rutgers, political science and Latin American studies, and at SIS, I did my master’s in US Foreign Policy and National Security. After that, I started with my current company, Bristol Myers Squibb. I was an in-house lobbyist, and earlier this year, I switched over to my current role, which is the Veterans Committee Network Global Lead.

From a very young age, I had to learn international affairs because I had to deal with currency exchange. We would send money to my mom in Colombia, so I was learning about the differential, the dollar versus the Colombian peso. I was taken from Colombia to the United States because of the political instability. As I got older, I was able to put all of these ideas and different experiences together; that's when I learned that this is my passion. How can I be a part of changing policy to make the system better?
What are some challenges and opportunities you have found as a Latino in the field of international affairs?
I wanted to be a part of the policy-making process. When I was a lobbyist, I would be part of these meetings—my focus as a lobbyist was health equity—addressing the question of how do we have access as people of color? Looking at the social determinants of health: from my experience, growing up, I did not have insurance, so I couldn’t get sick because we couldn’t afford a doctor. Also, there was nobody to stay at home to take care of me if I got sick. So again, that is the perspective that I brought to these meetings.

It was always difficult for me to sit in these meetings as the only person of color. Ninety percent of the time, I was the only person of color, and 95 percent of the time, I was the only Latino. You get one of two reactions. One of them was kind of like a look, like, ‘what are you doing here? How did you get here?’ They never explicitly said something, but you could tell by body language. Or you were exoticized. They look at you like, ‘wow, you made it. That’s impressive; that’s incredible. You must be one in a million’.

Whenever I get that reaction, I’m always like, no, there’s many of us. The unfortunate part is that we rarely get the opportunity. Once you break through that, being able to convey your story into whatever policy is at hand has a much better impact.
What skills/tools/knowledge did you gain from SIS that have proven especially important in your career?  
Networking. I had always been terrible at the networking piece, and I think it’s partially cultural, too. Latinos are very much: stay in your lane, keep your head down, work really hard, and someone will notice. Through my internships and through my experience at SIS, I was forced to network.

Being a graduate assistant was amazing; I got to work on different things with different people. It helped me connect with people completely outside of my circle. Also, with the help of Dr. Brenner, who pushed me to apply for the Rosenthal Fellowship. Because of that, I got my Capitol Hill experience. Although this experience was brief, it gave me some credibility to work on the Hill later. When I applied for my current job, I was more competitive because of that experience.

I will always be the biggest cheerleader for the skills institutes and the practicum because they teach you those real-world lessons and real-world practices that are done in the government space, like how to write a short memo because nobody has time to read a 10-page paper. Being able to have those hyper focused classes was huge.
What advice would you give current students from underrepresented communities about what they have to offer as a vital voice?
I do a lot of different mentoring, and this is the advice that I give to everyone: don’t be afraid to tell your story. Getting noticed happens less than we hope it would. Telling your story doesn’t mean that you are looking for pity or a handout. I want them to know that I am not unique. I am one of hundreds of thousands who has lived these experiences and is trying to make it. I do this because it is important to me that people know it’s not easy, but it can be done if we get a little bit of help. Why should we limit ourselves so that we can do it on our own? Nobody does it on their own. I want to help them understand that.

I would ask those I talk to who are in privileged situations to help us out. Volunteer with an organization or take some time to talk to an up-and-coming professional to give them some pointers. Think about mentoring some of us.
Who are your professional mentors (formal or informal), and how did they come to be your mentors?  
I have a mentor I met through a friend who comes from a very similar background to mine; this person has really taken me under his wing. His name is Kenneth Cooke, and right now, he works in finance. He is a person of color, African American, who grew up in an under-resourced community in Virginia. Growing up, he had to work very hard to get himself through college, trying to get scholarships and good grades. He started as a friend, and because he saw those similar experiences, he said, “Let me help you. Let me work with you.” Again, you have to be willing to accept the help.

On the more professional side, I have the leader of the Latino group at my company who has also been a mentor. I always raise my hand to participate at various events, and that has given me a lot of visibility in this company. And through this visibility, people see that ‘Ricardo is very eager to participate. He works hard. When he says he is going to do it, he is very committed’. So that allows people to see and then want to be your mentor or your sponsor.