2021 MIS Commencement Speaker: Mary Sloan

Reflecting on the uncertainties she faced when graduating, Mary Sloan addressed new graduates at the 2021 commencement ceremony for the master of international studies program. “It’s okay if the future remains unclear and you aren’t exactly sure where this next step will lead you. The past year has been an exercise in uncertainty,” she said. 

A 2016 MIS graduate, Mary is the country manager for North Africa, Europe and Eurasia with the U.S. Trade and Development Agency. Prior to this, Mary served as an international trade specialist for North & West Africa with the Advocacy Center at the U.S. Department of Commerce and as a commercial officer with the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka. 

As a graduate student Mary focused her studies on trade and development policy. She also earned a certificate in geospatial information systems. She was awarded a Boren Fellowship which took her to Morocco to study Arabic language and culture. While there, she conducted research on youth employment and became a program officer with the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Career Center Program in Rabat. 

“Some people are perhaps lucky and follow a linear path,” Mary said, “but others take what I like to call the spaghetti route—where there are twists and turns and sometimes things may seem incomprehensible, but that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong path.”

We caught up with Mary after her commencement speech to talk about her path and her career, so far. 

How and when did you know what you want to do professionally?

During my first semester in the MIS program, Dr. Michael Struett gave me a very good piece of advice. He said that students should start looking at jobs from day one of their program. The purpose of this is not to actually get a job, it is just to see what’s out there; to find out which organizations align with your interests so you can prepare for your career by taking courses and completing internships that will give you the best foundation for the career you want. I always knew I wanted to work abroad, so I made a list of possible organizations, and the prep work I did opened up my world and got me where I am today.

What are you most proud of in your career?

I think I am most proud of my time working in Bangladesh. When I went there, there was a lot of unrest in the country, and many people advised me to not go because it was perceived as dangerous, but I decided to take up the challenge. I worked closely with the U.S. Ambassador and at the end of my time there, I received the U.S. Department of State Meritorious Honor Award. So I think my proudest accomplishment has been going into a situation that was challenging and succeeding. I suggest to others to take on risks and challenges as well, because the outcome can be very rewarding.

What is something you struggle with in your working life?

One thing I have struggled with, and still do, is trusting in the skills and expertise that I have developed along the way. I always question myself and ask, will I be able to do this job competently with the skills I have? It’s not a lack of confidence, just these pervasive thoughts in my head. My high-school self would be very proud of my accomplishments, and I wish I were as content. I want to believe that my abilities can take me places and I think these feelings can resonate with others in the program.

What did you enjoy most about being a student at NC State?

I enjoyed the tight-knit cohort I had in the MIS program, the friendship and camaraderie we shared, and how diverse the group was. We had such different experiences, and all of that was brought together in our classes. Our different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives enriched discussions and we learned a lot from each other. These experiences are very valuable to me; I cherish these memories the most. 

Is there  anything you wish you had done differently as a graduate student?

If I were to go back, I might focus a bit more on the technical side of things. I did the GIS course, but maybe more data analysis skills would have given me an edge. At the same time, I did not want to do only that sort of work; I wanted to go out into the world and get in the soil and work. That is also the reason I decided not to do a doctorate. So I would consider learning a little more data analysis, but as it is, I am happy with what I achieved while in the MIS program. 

What advice do you have for current graduate students?

Do not be afraid to take a path that is unclear, but aligns with your ambitions or feels right to you. You may be apprehensive about something, but take a leap of faith. Also find mentors along the way and never be afraid to ask for help or advice. 


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