Jessica Smith (MPIA, SIS ‘17) works in the Disaster Cycle Services Department at the American Red Cross of Southwestern Pennsylvania, which focuses on disaster preparedness, response and recovery programming for all of Allegheny County. This department provides significant resources for communities on disaster preparedness and response, including preparedness presentations for children, seniors, and more general audiences. The Red Cross also responds to house fires and other disasters every day in Allegheny County, ensuring those affected receive help to repair their home, find a new home, or replace other essential items.
While Jessica only began working for the Red Cross in June of this year, she has already responded to a number of local and national disasters. This summer, Jessica helped individuals recover from flooding and from a building collapse in Washington County. Most recently, she was deployed to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands to assist with the response to and recovery from Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Initially, Jessica was working alongside local volunteers and going door-to-door to distribute water, clean-up kits, and food. Currently, she is assessing the needs of individuals remaining in shelters and connecting them with local services to help them return home. “I’m overwhelmed in a good way by how many people want to help others,” Jessica says. “I have always known that, but seeing it on such a large scale has been really impactful for me.”
Jessica developed her interest in disaster management and made efforts to acquire experience in the field while she was at GSPIA. She obtained a minor in Civil Security and Disaster Management and, at the same time, completed an internship at the Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security in Pittsburgh. That spurred her interest. “I was a Security and Intelligence Studies major and I found that natural disasters make countries as vulnerable as more traditional security and intelligence [issues].” Jessica was also part of a working group at GSPIA’s Ridgway Center that investigated how disasters contribute to a city’s resilience or fragility.
Jessica completed a summer internship between her first and second graduate years at the Global Disaster Preparedness Center of the American Red Cross in Washington, D.C. She continued to work throughout the school year on a volunteer basis. During her internship, Jessica worked on a program to develop a mobile application for business preparedness plans. “The internship program at the Red Cross is well-developed. I realized it was an organization that I believe in and I had a really enjoyable experience there, so they were the top of my list in terms of where I wanted to get a full-time job when I graduated.”
She said that her experience as Student Cabinet President at GSPIA was also helpful to her. “We have over 100 volunteers [at the Red Cross]. I do a lot of coordinating with them and providing support to them to make sure that they have the training, materials, and tools they need. I’m trying to help them get the opportunity they need to rise up within our department programs to more leadership roles. I use some of the skills that I gained on the Student Cabinet in GSPIA to coordinate people and work with people.”
For students who are looking for an internship or job in a specific field like emergency management, Jessica recommends students talk to professors within those areas as well as to GSPIA Career Services. She also recommends keeping an eye on job postings in organizations of interest, attending seminars on related topics, and talking to alumni and practitioners to get more insights about the field.