Meet a Flinn Scholar: Jon Gandomi

October 6, 2008

By hammersmith

It wasn’t hard to see why Jon Gandomi wanted to spend a summer working at the United Nations.

During childhood, he had lived five years in New Zealand. Then, at the age of 19, the 1999 Flinn Scholar spent more than a year traveling throughout South America, Russia, and Kazakhstan as part of the Generation of Hope, an international community-empowerment project that used the performing arts to help young people respond to injustice.

Within the next four years, Gandomi would achieve proficiency in Spanish and Russian, write an honors thesis on regional economic integration in the former Soviet Union, and earn the Harry S. Truman Scholarship, the nation’s highest award for undergraduates pursuing careers in public service. With that trajectory in mind, as a college freshman he applied for an internship with the U.S. delegation to the United Nations.

His application was rejected.

So he applied again. And was rejected again.

So he applied a third time. And was rejected yet again.

“Eventually,” Gandomi says with a laugh, “I realized that they only took graduate students. I had to be persistent.”

There’s an undeniable “wow” factor in many of Jon Gandomi’s experiences over the past several years: the time he was mistaken for a Chechen rebel by a Kazakh man who wanted him to join the insurgency in Iraq; the time he was swimming off the coast of Albania, stopped to rest on a buoy, and discovered it was actually a warning sign for live mines; the time he served as an authoritative link to the Western media from the trial of a Russian oil tycoon.

But underlying such stories, you find some convictions and character traits that are perfectly ordinary–if not particularly common. He believes people can abandon prejudice. He chooses to define his own path. He persists.

Gandomi found a strong match for those attributes in the Flinn Scholars Program. “Deciding on the Flinn Scholarship was a tough choice for me,” he acknowledges. “I was considering Emory University with a full scholarship. But I decided on the Flinn because they seemed interested in developing me as a person.”

Today, along with his bachelor’s degree in international studies from the University of Arizona, Gandomi holds a master’s degree in international relations from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Attending a small private university for graduate school made him more pleased that he chose UA for his undergraduate education.

“I think it’s a great combination to do the Flinn Scholarship and then go out of state for graduate school,” Gandomi says. “You can get the best of both worlds. The Arizona state universities offer you a great laboratory in which to experiment and become what you want to be, and then you can access the incredible resources at other institutions. I’ve been enriched by both experiences.”

One of the most important benefits of attending UA, Gandomi notes, is that he learned how to manufacture possibilities. “An admissions director at Princeton told me that students coming from state universities tend to take better advantage of opportunities there,” he says, “and I found that to be true. Being at a large university forced me to develop a stronger initiative, something I don’t think you develop as much if you’re in a very small environment with all your opportunities sitting right in front of you.”

He cites his Flinn Scholars experience as helping him cultivate that sense of initiative. “One of the great things about the Flinn,” he says, “is the set of values it promotes, especially individual ownership of your education and trying out different things. There’s a focus on making you into a person more capable of achieving what you want.”

For Gandomi, achieving what he wanted during college in part meant finding a way to return to Kazakhstan. He had become intrigued by the country during the Generations of Hope project, when he had spent several months in Russia, Kazakhstan, and other former Soviet republics; his group, anchored in principles of the Baha’i faith, had employed drama, music, and dance to inspire young people to confront problems disrupting their communities.

The week-long programs and presentations the group had made were designed to promote dialogue among students. “It’s easy to say we should accept that we’re all different and shouldn’t hate each other,” Gandomi explains, “but often people have made up their minds, and it really takes something significant to change those perceptions. The arts can impact people differently than an argument can–circumventing the mind and going straight to the heart.”

Now Gandomi wanted to learn more about political and economic pressures faced by the Kazakh people as their country continued its emergence from decades of Soviet control. To get back to Kazakhstan, he applied for a National Security Education Program (NSEP) Boren Scholarship, an award administered by the nonprofit Institute for International Education to help students to study abroad in areas of the world critical to U.S. interests that are underrepresented in study abroad.

Gandomi received the NSEP scholarship, and during the 2002-2003 academic year used it to study economics, politics, and Russian language at the Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics, and Strategic Research. As one might guess, that wasn’t an educational institution with extensive ties to UA. “I had to create the relationship with the university there,” Gandomi says.

But once in Kazakhstan, other doors began to open. Until then, Gandomi says, he had struggled to gain entrance to the kinds of career-related openings that he was seeking, such as the U.N. internship.

“At UA, I was under Dr. Wayne Decker [director of international studies and external affairs for the Honors College],” Gandomi says. “He’s fantastic, and I owe him an incredible amount. But even he can’t set up internships for every one of his students. He will give you great guidance, but you have to take the initiative on your own.”

While he was studying in Kazakhstan, Gandomi began looking for additional opportunities. His break came when he offered his services to the U.S. Agency for International Development. During the summer of 2003, he canvassed 10 cities of southern Kyrgyzstan, eastern Uzbekistan, and northern Tajikistan, conducting surveys of nearly 300 local business owners about the regulatory environments and business climates in which they were striving to make a living.

“It took going out there to make that happen,” Gandomi says, noting one benefit of being young, flexible, and willing to work almost for free: “As an undergraduate, you can just show up and people will use you.”

Gandomi acknowledges the risk involved in such an entrepreneurial approach to education and the beginning of a career, but believes it will pay dividends. “People want to have something set up, but I actually think that’s not the best way to do it,” he says. “You have to be a bit more bold and ambitious. You’ll find something useful that’s going on.”

The next breakthrough for Gandomi was his selection as a Truman Scholar. One facet of the Truman program, with its orientation toward preparing Scholars for public service, is guidance in finding the right work environment. In some cases, such assistance is just as valuable as the funding the Truman Foundation provides for graduate studies.

Gandomi opted to work for two years before starting graduate school, and after a number of interviews in Washington, D.C., ended up at APCO Worldwide, a private-sector, international communications consultancy company–at first glance a few steps removed from the public-service field. But it was in fact the Truman Foundation that helped him find the position.

“They indicated that it might be the most interesting position for me,” Gandomi says, particularly because he was anticipating a public-service career in the long-term. He gained important insights about how public- and private-sector organizations work. One strength of the private sector that he discovered at APCO, where he was assigned to a government-relations team working on behalf of a Russian energy company, was how quickly they can make decisions.

“I suggested that I could work from Moscow more effectively, and within four days, I was on a plane there,” Gandomi says. In short order, he became one of the primary sources of information about the highly politicized fraud trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, at one time the wealthiest man in Russia.

When Gandomi started his master’s program at Princeton, he was ready to approach the international arena from a public-sector perspective again. In place of a thesis, he would serve for a semester on a research team that was performing analysis for the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee of the best practices from various NATO member countries that were implementing provincial reconstruction teams in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he submitted a fourth application for an internship with the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.

This time, his persistence paid off. During the summer of 2007, Gandomi worked in the delegation’s Political Section, monitoring Middle East issues at the Security Council. He concentrated particularly on Lebanon, covering the portfolio of a Foreign Service officer who was away for the summer. That meant joining the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, for any meetings that concerned Lebanon; the subject might be a U.N. peacekeeping mission, a tribunal that was investigating an assassination, or conversations between Israel and Syria.

“As an international relations student, it was maybe the best place in the world,” Gandomi says. “It was an interesting experience in terms of watching negotiations happen, and hearing the inner details of discussions between leaders–the kind of information you normally don’t hear by reading the paper.”

He didn’t have a background in Lebanese politics or history, but soon gained a sense of how complicated the country’s relationships are with its neighbors. “We would go from meetings with Lebanon to meetings with Israel,” he says. “It often seemed that they weren’t even reading from the same book, let alone being on the same page.”

From his internship and a subsequent course at Princeton on peacekeeping missions, Gandomi came to a more nuanced understanding of how the institution of the United Nations works. “There are different circles of power—the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, the Secretary General’s office, the Security Council. There’s a lot of generic talk about the U.N.,” he says, “but at the end of the day, when people say the U.N. isn’t acting, they’re really talking about the Security Council, and specifically the five permanent members.

“The U.N. is a reflection of the state of the international community, and the degree to which member states want to cooperate,” he continues. “When things aren’t happening, it’s often not the U.N.’s fault, or the Secretary General’s fault; it’s the member states. I don’t really agree that people get the government they deserve,” he adds, “but perhaps the member states get the U.N. that they deserve.”

Gandomi has now completed his master’s degree, and is beginning work at the U.S. Department of State as a Presidential Management Fellow. The Presidential Management Fellowship Program, designed to draw top graduate students into management at federal-government agencies, offers two-year appointments to often highly competitive positions; after their fellowships, PMF Fellows can become permanent employees in their agencies.

Gandomi is one of two new PMF Fellows serving in the Washington, D.C. Office of the Coordinator of Reconstruction and Stabilization (CRS). That office oversees the rapidly growing Civilian Response Corps, a unit designed to deploy resources and civilian experts internationally to stabilize countries that have fallen into conflict or keep afloat governments that are at risk of collapsing.

“This is a response to the acknowledgement that the military can’t do all of these things,” Gandomi says. “The office is also acting as a coordinator between the State Department, USAID, the Department of Defense, and other U.S. agencies when it comes to post-conflict response.”

Gandomi’s new role will hardly make him into a government bureaucrat, tethered to his desk. “Because this office is focused on training at the international level, I’ll have many opportunities to travel and visit different countries while based in D.C.,” he says.

And so his exploration of the world, and his efforts to resolve conflicts, will continue. “What niche I thought I would occupy has changed a little bit,” he acknowledges. “The field I’ve been interested in has been consistent from day one.”

For more information:

Flickr slideshow

Flinn Scholarship Application

National Security Education Program Boren Scholarships

Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation

Presidential Management Fellows Program