When Elsa Alvarado ’18 arrived for her first day of work at the Pentagon, the human resources woman led her into a room and said, “Here’s your office.” Alvarado was sure it was a mistake—there was a huge window. At the Pentagon, only the top-tier people got a window. She’d been expecting a cubicle. She then learned she had been named the director of strategic communications within the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense, something she hadn’t known until that day when she was introduced to her team of two legislative analysts and five interns.
How at the age of 24 did she come to be one of the youngest political appointees to the Pentagon in the Biden administration? After returning from China where she had earned a master’s in global affairs through a prestigious Schwarzman Scholars fellowship, she found herself without a secure job. It was the height of the pandemic, and finding work was tough. With an interest in politics, she turned to the Biden presidential campaign, applied to every job available, and was hired to work on the vetting team. Her job was to vet all events for Jill Biden—if she visited a restaurant, Alvarado had to vet it; if anyone took a photo with Dr. Biden, Alvarado had to vet the person; any speakers Dr. Biden interacted with, Alvarado had to vet them. She needed to make sure all interactions were in line with their campaign values and there were no scandals. “It was really stressful,” Alvarado says. “And there were some close calls.”
But the job led to a spot on the inaugural committee after Joe Biden won the election. She continued vetting—people who donated money, celebrities who performed. After the inauguration, she learned she was being considered for a role in communications in the Pentagon. “I was really excited because it was in line with what I was interested in: communications, foreign policy, legislative affairs.” At the time of her interview, her title was special assistant to the assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs. “I thought I’d be interviewed for a junior analyst position. What I didn’t know was that most of the political appointees in the Biden administration had the title of special assistant. Once you join a government agency and team, you receive your internal title.” Hence, her amazement on her first day of work that she was a director and had her own team.
“They started bringing me papers, saying you need to sign this, approve this, we have a crisis. I had to go to the bathroom just to collect myself.” But Alvarado worked hard to figure it all out, taking a crash course in the military, relying on people to help her understand the job. She ended up loving it and found herself contemplating a new path in politics.
Alvarado’s journey to the Pentagon was filled with the types of challenges a first-generation American might face. Her parents had emigrated from Nicaragua and, while educated, could only find factory jobs in New York City. “We lived in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, which at that time was a poor, gang-ridden neighborhood, with a lot of crime. My grandparents were luckily able to take care of me while my parents worked. Through a couple of years of saving, they were able to buy a home in Queens.” Alvarado’s first language was Spanish, so her mother enrolled her in Head Start, where she had bilingual teachers and could learn English before moving into the public school system. For her parents, education was of the utmost importance. “Their philosophy in parenting me was that education is first; you have to have high grades. That’s the path to success in this country.”
There was no doubt Alvarado would attend college. But as far as the process for choosing the right one, or even applying, her parents couldn’t help her. “So I used Google and just figured it out,” she says. She’d been studying French since middle school and had developed an interest in politics, so her dream was to study political science in Paris at Sciences Po. Several of her teachers told her that if she wanted to study abroad in Paris, she should go to Middlebury. “I think my parents thought I’d go to school in New York City and stay close by, the way students do in Nicaragua. So when I started applying to schools in D.C., Boston, Vermont, they were hesitant at first. But they then realized it was common in this country for kids to go to a campus and live there.”
Accepted at Middlebury, she showed up in September 2014. She hadn’t visited campus, so she didn’t know what to expect. “We got there, and I was hit with the reality that I was in rural Vermont. I saw all these kids in hiking clothes, and they had hiking gear and camping gear. I’d never been camping or on a hike in my life.” Her outsider feelings continued in classes. In her first class, she was the only one to show up with a notebook and pen. Everyone else had brand-new MacBook Pros. The next day she showed up with a thick old Toshiba laptop her father had given her that sounded like a plane taking off when she started it up. She got looks.
“There were so many things that made me feel different. A lot of students had so much background knowledge in academic subjects that I didn’t have coming from a New York City public school.” But her first-year hall in Battell had a mix of international students and kids from other parts of the country who were also having to adjust to an unfamiliar situation. They all bonded. Alvarado started to get involved in activities where she felt comfortable and, after about a month, began to feel she was fitting in with her cohort.
When she was a junior, she achieved her goal of studying political science at Sciences Po in Paris. She applied for and received a Gilman Scholarship, which helped cover her living costs. The experience was transformative. She was in France during the French presidential election of 2017 and ended up volunteering for Emmanuel Macron’s campaign, getting political experience on the ground.
Applying for scholarships was a skill Alvarado developed early on. In high school she applied to every single scholarship that came along. As a senior, she was awarded a Hispanic Scholarship Fund grant, which started her long relationship with the nonprofit. Every year they invited the top 100 Latino students to California to attend a conference, and her senior year at Middlebury she attended one called the Career Symposium. She heard a speaker talk about the Schwarzman Scholars program, which paid for a one-year master’s degree in China. He said that not enough Latinos were part of the program and Latinos should get to know China, especially if they wanted to be involved in government. Alvarado was convinced and applied. She made it to the finals but wasn’t picked.
So after graduation, she decided to join a law firm as a litigation legal assistant to work toward becoming a lawyer. While she enjoyed the work, she noticed clearly the racial divide between what the lawyers looked like and what the legal assistants looked like. “The lawyers were predominantly white men from the Ivy Leagues, and the assistants were students of color. And I remember going to the dining hall at the firm, which was very fancy, and all the cooks were Hispanic and Latino. I’d think, how is it possible I can see myself more in the cooks than in the lawyers? I remember telling my parents this because it was the first time I’d seen it so blatantly, and they didn’t understand. They said just talk to the cooks, hang out with them. That was the tension. I wanted to connect more with the lawyers.”
At this point, Alvarado’s path took another turn. A friend, who had also applied before, convinced her to try again for the Schwarzman scholarship. The second time around, both she and her friend were successful and headed to China. Out of the 40 Americans in the program, they were the only Latinas, and both were from the Hispanic Scholarship Fund group. But the cohort of international students was very diverse, and the educational experience was valuable. Alvarado earned her degree in global affairs, with a specialty in U.S.-China relations.
She believes the expertise she gained through the master’s was one of the reasons she was chosen for the Pentagon job, along with her experience on the Biden campaign. One challenge, however, was that she had no military experience and no one in her family had served in the military. “There were people at Schwarzman who were in the Navy, so I would call them for basic things, like, What are the ranks? How do I address people?” Her team was also a huge help in getting her up to speed. They were used to working with new appointees every four years, training them and teaching them how to incorporate the president’s vision into the job. “I didn’t walk in with a feeling of superiority. I walked in saying, ‘Please teach me everything so we can make this work.’ They were my lifeline for the first few months.”
She was particularly grateful for them when, several months into the job, she had to deal with the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. It was August, and Congress wasn’t in session. Much of her team’s job was working with Congress on big issues, and without them, there was a big gap in communication. Every day the situation was changing and something devastating was happening. Pressure was high at the Pentagon, and Alvarado relied on her team to help gather and disseminate information.
Her other big challenge was the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “I remember being in my apartment watching the news and seeing it had officially started, and I knew the next day at work was going to be a mess.” As the information hub, her office had to collect all the complicated information from the experts and whittle it down into talking points. An expert might send Alvarado a 10-page essay with footnotes on a particular situation, and she would have to read it all and make three bullet points with digestible information; then she’d send it to the secretary of defense so he could take it to Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Senator Chuck Schumer. The stress was high and intense during these crises.
While she did her job well, there were still moments when she felt she had to fight for respect. In such a male-dominated environment, just going into a meeting and being the only woman—and the youngest—made it difficult to be taken seriously, to speak up and have a voice. “I think that was my first real challenge. On the Biden campaign it was a very diverse team, my managers were all women. The Pentagon was so stark.”
When asked about the most gratifying thing that happened for her at the Pentagon, Alvarado doesn’t hesitate: “The internship program.” She had noticed that the interns, who had been hired during the Trump administration, were all white and all went to the same school as the person who hired them. The process of getting the job was mainly through connections. She worked with human resources to start an internship program that focused on bringing in a diverse group of interns. She contacted schools, set up an application process, did the interviews, gave a writing exam. It was a rigorous process. “My goal was to bring in people of color, low-income students, women. I think we were really successful in that.” She ended up shepherding 20 to 25 interns through the program during her time at the Pentagon.
She didn’t just hire them, however. She also served as their mentor and shared her stories with them, something she does as well for the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, where she mentors young Latinas. “So much of what I’ve learned is from hearing other people’s stories and seeing what’s possible. I have open and frank conversations with them about what I’ve done and the struggles I’ve faced.” It’s about taking risks, she says, being willing to change things up and pursue your passions. “I let them know about the risks I took that ended up paying huge dividends.”
One of those risks landed her in the job she currently has. After about a year and a half at the Pentagon, Alvarado decided she needed to advance her career in a different direction. “I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into becoming a defense communications person. I was excited by the job, but it wasn’t really my passion.” She had a vision of moving up in government but knew she needed to work across different sectors, like education, technology, philanthropy, and others. So she interviewed and was hired as the director of public affairs at Bryson Gillette, a progressive strategic communications firm founded by President Obama’s former deputy press secretary, Bill Burton. She leads public affairs campaigns in the media for CEOs and nonprofits. Like at the Pentagon, she advises older, more experienced people. “I never thought I’d be advising CEOs on their media profiles, but they really respect my expertise because they know I did this high-level work at the Pentagon.”
Alvarado has developed a clear sense of what she wants to achieve. “My heart and soul are in government and politics. My job now is a stepping stone, learning about communications, advising clients and helping them achieve their vision. Ultimately, I want to be an advisor for a campaign, for a candidate, and even run for office myself someday.” One thought she has is to try running for the city council in New York. But even Congress is on her list. “After working with members of Congress, I came to the realization that they aren’t these otherworldly figures that are untouchable, like I envisioned them as a kid. I met them and thought, ‘I can do this job. I can run when the time comes.’” She laughs, clearly enjoying her confidence. “And I can probably do it better because I worked at the Pentagon and have built up my profile.”