Sylvia Amegashie, MSFS’19, comes to Georgetown with leadership experience from her service in the U.S. military, non-profit experience from volunteering in Ghana, and consulting experience from Booz Allen Hamilton. She is a graduate of West Point, the United States Military Academy, and has language skills in both Twi and French. We had the opportunity to sit down with her to discuss her background and her decision to pursue an MSFS degree.
When you were growing up, what inspired or motivated you to attend West Point and join the Army?
My initial interest in the military was sparked in my early teens by military action films and commercials. As a young athlete, I was eager to experience the physical rigors of the military, so I joined my high school's Naval JROTC program thinking I'd be learning to climb ropes and crawl under barbed wire. It turned out that JROTC was more about leadership development and instilling the values of citizenship - inspiring a hunger for service to the nation. Simultaneously, as a freshman on the varsity soccer team, I really looked up to a senior on varsity who was pursuing admission to West Point, which led me to begin researching the Academy. It turned out that my guidance counselor was a graduate of West Point, more formally referred to as the United States Military Academy (USMA). By the time I reached my senior year, I was having a lot of success as a varsity track athlete and as I continued to meet more West Point graduates - Cadets, coaches and alumni - it was clear to me that the opportunity to compete as a Division I college athlete, receive an amazing education, and pursue a career in the military would be a dream come true for me. When I was fortunate enough to be accepted, there was no question where I was going - West Point!
What lessons did you learn in the Army that best prepared you to work in leadership positions?
I learned many important lessons, but three really stand out to me. A huge misconception about the military is that leadership is simple because Soldiers have to follow orders. But I learned at the academy that in order to get Soldiers to follow you and produce the best results, you have to be willing to do the same things you ask of them (or order them to do). Whether that means a 5-mile run at 5 a.m., running a week-long conference, or freezing in the rain on a field exercise, you should be out front, enthusiastic and willing to endure the pain alongside them. You really have to lead from the front and by example.
A second lesson I learned was how to push through your fears or challenges not suited to your strengths in order to achieve a very necessary objective. During senior year at West Point, students select their branch or specialty from roughly 17 options within the Army. After graduating West Point, the next step is to attend an Officer Basic Course for several months before your first assignment. I chose the Chemical Corps, as opposed to Aviation, Artillery, Infantry, Military Police, Engineers, etc. So, a few months after graduating I was sent to study at the United States Army's headquarters for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) training. Part of the training required wearing a heavy full-bodied chemical suit, hood and mask. To build your confidence using the equipment, they make you suit up and test it out with real chemicals. The training made me rather nervous since I'm extremely claustrophobic. Thrust into this "non-optional" situation, I had to use continuous self-positive reinforcement in order to condition my mind and successfully complete this training.
Finally, my old battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Eickhoff, used to say, "always leave an organization better than you found it." In the Army, you are often double tasked with multiple responsibilities well outside the boundaries of your defined role. In doing so, you really learn to give your best effort in everything you touch, because not only should you want to leave an organization better, but you are ultimately evaluated on your overall performance, even if something wasn't "your responsibility." Ultimately, it teaches you to take responsibility for your actions.
The majority of students in MSFS don't have military experience. What would be an important lesson or point of information that you think is important for them to know about the military?
When you think of the military, most people focus on what they see in the movies - combat roles. I would like for people to understand that the Army is a self-sustaining organization that essentially operates like a major corporation or a small country. We have many roles in order to sustain operations around the world. You have people in combat roles, but even more in combat support roles like finance, foreign relations, education and training, medical/dental/veterinary, logistics, cyber/chemical warfare, etc. Everyone has a unique story and I would encourage my classmates to learn more by asking about people's individual experiences rather than make assumptions. Most military people, like people in every profession, are usually excited to tell you.
How did you decide to volunteer with the Cheerful Hearts Foundation in Ghana? What did you most enjoy about your work there and what were the biggest challenges?
After leaving the military, I wanted to see more of the world and spent the better part of 2015 traveling. I also wanted some of that travel to be more than just sight-seeing, so I researched non-profits that focus on human rights issues and were looking for volunteers. I contacted UBELONG, a D.C.-based organization, that put me in contact with the Cheerful Hearts Foundation in Ghana. This non-profit focused on combating child labor and trafficking in small fishing villages. My parents are both from Ghana, but at that point I had never traveled or lived in the country on my own. I was excited to practice my Twi (a dialect spoken in Ghana) and live amongst Ghanaians sans family. It was the perfect opportunity to learn more about my heritage and a number of human rights issues plaguing the country. In the six months I was there, I enjoyed working with children the most. I volunteered at a school in the village I was assigned to and I also educated teachers and students at different schools in the area on laws, policies, and rights as they pertained to children in Ghana. It was heartbreaking to see some of the hardships they dealt with, but very rewarding when any new concept was finally understood. The most challenging thing for me was not seeing immediate results or being able to get through to everyone. I had to be okay with planting seeds in the minds of some Ghanaians and hoped for the best.
What led you to work at Booz Allen and what do you think were the most important experiences that you brought to the job?
I wasn't quite sure what the next steps for my life were after traveling for a year. I wanted to try my hand at something new and Booz Allen presented a new set of challenges. Although I had never worked in the IT world, I understood management, knew how to research, was willing to learn, and was not afraid to ask questions. These were all the things I learned during my military career and they served me well at Booz Allen.
Why did you decide to attend MSFS and what do you hope to accomplish during your time here? Finally, what do you hope to do after MSFS?
The six months I spent in Ghana was not enough time to understand and help solve the problems that plagued the region, but it was a start. One year later, I found myself missing not only the people, but also the work. I had the will, but did not have all the tools or knowledge necessary to work in that type of environment. That's what led me to look into the MSFS program. The aspect I found most attractive was the versatility of the program. I want to take my career in a new direction while mastering new theories and concepts that will be beneficial in international development. MSFS is the place to do that. Ultimately, I want to work in West Africa and focus on issues pertaining to women.