Peer Career Advisor (PCA) and Posse Scholar Zoey Ellis ’22 interviewed Ryan Tauriainen ’08 to answer common career related questions LGBTQ+ identifying students might have when seeking job opportunities.
Zoey: What activities or student organizations were you involved in during college and how did they help you get to where you are today?
Ryan: While a student, I was predominantly involved with Middlebury Open Queer Alliance (MOQA) and Feminist Action at Middlebury (FAM). I was co-president of MOQA in 2007-2008, which was an eventful period for queer activism at Middlebury. I was also part of a three-person team that successfully founded the Queer Studies House in 2008. Being the leader of a student organization helped me to develop communication and organization skills, which was useful in future leadership positions I held.
Zoey: As a graduate who identiﬁes as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Non-Binary, Gender Non-Conforming, Genderfluid, or Queer, what are some of the questions you suggest students should keep in mind when researching employers and applying to job opportunities?
Ryan: Bostock v. Clayton County (2020) held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender expression. The landscape for queer people in employment is better than it has ever been. That being said, working in a supportive environment is key for one’s mental health. I’d suggest that students do their research before applying. Does the workplace have a history of supporting LGBT people or causes? Does the workplace have an LGBT affinity group? Are there already LGBT employees one can check-in with? Are there LGBT people in seats of leadership or influence? Does the place of work donate to organizations or politicians who are anti-LGBT?
It is also essential to remember when an employer is interviewing you, you are also interviewing your employer. If you feel comfortable, you could ask how the employer supports Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and specifically LGBT employees.
Zoey: Would you suggest students consider to what extent they would like their career to incorporate their LGBTQ+ identity? Do you want your identity to have a major role, such as working for an LGBTQ+ advocacy group? Or expressed differently, like joining the LGBTQ+ affinity group for employees at an organization?
Ryan: LGBT people, like everyone else, should pursue the career or field that they are passionate about. If that means pursuing a job that is directly related to LGBT rights or activism, that’s wonderful, but it isn’t the right fit for everyone. For some LGBT people, they may have a career that isn’t directly tied to their identity (lawyer, teacher, etc.) but allows their identity to be incorporated in a different way. For example, a queer professor who advises a queer student group on campus or a queer physician who does outreach to the LGBT community. Joining affinity groups can be a great way to find support or make friendships at work when they exist. That is not something that interests every queer person and it should never feel compulsory to be involved in such groups.
Personally, I have always been “out” wherever I worked in the sense that people I worked with always knew that I was gay and partnered (eventually married) to another man. When I was a teacher and a school leader, it was not necessarily something I discussed with students or parents unless it was applicable to the conversation, but that had more to do with keeping my personal life and professional life separate. For some people, that is a very important delineation. Essentially, people should express themselves at the level they choose.
Zoey: Could you recommend any career-related LGBTQ+ resources that helped you in the job search process?
Ryan: I have been very fortunate that in every role I’ve held, using career-related resources wasn’t necessary for me to find the job. I will give the recommendation of the Victory Fund as an LGBT resource if you would like to pursue political appointments for an administration. I know that they are working with the Biden administration to increase the number of LGBT appointees.
Zoey: Have you come out to your employer, and if so, when in the employment process and how?
Ryan: I’ve been fortunate to always work in environments or states in which being LGBT was protected, if not celebrated. In my adulthood, I’ve always felt comfortable being “out.” I’ve never had to “come out” to my employers in the sense that based on my appearance and mannerisms it is usually assumed. Sometimes people are visibly curious but feel uncomfortable asking, so in those cases, I will mention something about my husband to confirm suspicions. I also do this if I find out or suspect a coworker is LGBT, in order for them to find another ally. For example, as a principal, I had the occasion to interview (and hire) applicants who were gay and transgender and I always made a point to drop the hint that I was a member of the community so that they would be less nervous. It gave me great pleasure to hire other LGBT people (as long as they were also qualified and a good fit)!
Zoey: What advice would you give your younger college self?
Ryan: The advice that I would give my younger self would be to apply for everything and not fear rejection. When I was younger, I would talk myself out of applying for programs or jobs because I would convince myself I wasn’t qualified. At a certain point, I started to ask myself, “Why not me?” and pursued everything I was interested in. I wish I had that mindset sooner. I also do not get discouraged by rejection. There have been multiple programs I have applied for and been rejected on the first try. Persistence matters! I have been admitted to nearly every program I have pursued, eventually – sometimes after three tries. In 2019, I was the first Middlebury graduate to ever be admitted into the White House Fellowship, a program with an acceptance rate of less than 1%. However, after applying three years in a row, I eventually made it in. I was told my perseverance was one of the major factors in being offered one of the 15 spots that year.
Zoey: Is there any other advice that you’d like to share with Middlebury students?
Ryan: Middlebury students are incredibly fortunate – do not waste the opportunity you are being given at one of the most beautiful and enriching schools in the world. While a student at Middlebury, challenge yourself to take classes that will perfect your writing and speaking skills. I have found that those are the most important and universal skills in the professional world. You may be surprised to find out just how few people can do those two things well.
My second piece of advice is to be bold and to reach out. I think this should apply to anyone you want to reach out to, but Midd Kids should feel especially comfortable reaching out to other alums. I have found that Middlebury alumni tend to be extremely loyal to our alma mater. Do not be afraid to reach out (via email, LinkedIn, social media, etc) to Middlebury alums who can help you in your field. You would be surprised just how many will respond and actively want to assist you. The worst thing that could happen is being ignored – and that puts you in essentially the same situation had you not reached out at all. Put yourself out there confidently and respectfully and you will go far. On a related note, always be kind to “assistants” and “schedulers”! If you do it the correct way, you’ll always get a response.
My third piece of advice is to never underestimate the power of written thank-you letters. One of the best investments I ever made was having personalized stationery and envelopes made (with my name, address, and a monogram). I even bought a fountain pen, wax, and a wax-seal. Every prominent or potentially helpful person who gives me a moment of time receives a hand-written and mailed card from me. I cannot tell you how much that sticks out in people’s minds. They simply do not forget it! Something that takes just a few minutes could create a lifetime of opportunity.
Ryan Tauriainen was most recently a White House Fellow serving in the US Department of Education where he helped to streamline operations, manage education grants, and direct the Department’s response to COVID-19. Ryan also helped to oversee the dissemination of over $30 billion of emergency educational funding. Prior to being a Fellow, Ryan had a long career in public K-12 education. Ryan started his career as a Hawaii Public Schools teacher through Teach For America, where he was among the highest performing teachers in the state. He moved to Washington, DC in 2010 where he would serve as a teacher, principal, and district leader. Ryan became a principal at age 26, making him the youngest in the country at the time. He has won several local awards for educational leadership, including being The Washington Post’s Principal of the Year in 2016, and has national awards from five different organizations. He is the author of five children’s books. Ryan received his bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College while on a National Merit Scholarship and a master of education from Chaminade University of Honolulu. He is currently pursuing doctoral studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.
If you would like to contact Ryan Tauriainen, please reach out via Midd2Midd!