Brought to you by theRising, this educational series is designed to help you learn more about careers in environmental sustainability from professionals who already work in the field. This interview is with Amber J. Davis, a Legal Technician at the EPA, who shares how students can secure EPA jobs. Let us know which careers we should explore next and who we should be chatting with at firstname.lastname@example.org. Subscribe here so we can keep our independent journalism and educational content going.
It would be a vast understatement to say that three pregnancies, a torn ACL, and a full-time job while you’re finishing up school is one heck of a challenge. Top that off with a revoked college basketball scholarship and flunking out of nursing school and you’ve got circumstances that would cause almost anyone to stop in their tracks. But not Amber Davis.
Amber and I met in Professor Hugh Bartling’s Green Cities class when I used to attend DePaul. There, I learned that Amber remarkably worked from 11:00 PM to 7:00 AM before our 9:40 AM class. I didn’t know how she was doing it, but clearly, hard work was paying off.
Last Spring, Amber graduated from DePaul University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Public Policy and now she’s a Legal Technician at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), where she provides administrative and legal assistance for its Attorneys.
To learn more about her seemingly impossible journey, including Amber’s tips for how students can secure EPA jobs and more, we sat down for a quick chat.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
LAUREN BEAUBAN: It seems like you were really interested in Healthcare and nursing up until 2018 or so when you started a public policy program at DePaul and ended up working for JB Pritzker. What inspired this sort of change in career direction?
AMBER DAVIS: I love helping people and always figured that healthcare was the way. In 2017, my position in healthcare management was reduced and I was devastated. When I enrolled at DePaul in the Spring of 2018, an academic advisor suggested I pursue politics from a healthcare angle after hearing my background. I met with a few people in a walk-in Political Science class and knew Public Policy was my passion. As I continued to network at DePaul, I began to meet alumni doing great political activism in the community. And that led to working with JB Pritzker for his Illinois Governor Campaign.
Two courses inspired Amber to seriously consider EPA jobs
Out of all the policy areas, what got you interested in environmental protection and sustainability? How did it play a role in fostering your interest in EPA jobs?
Professor Bartling and his Green Cities class. I thought his class was a waste of time (at first!), and I had no business in it. His class changed my life. I come from Corpus Christi, TX, and a product of the EPA having to intervene in my childhood neighborhood for an illegal environmental hazard affecting sustainable human life. Basically, the environment was killing people with illegally disposed of toxins and the perpetrators did nothing about it for generations.
Everything I learned in my neighborhood growing up — that the environmental injustices were generational — finally made sense. And I knew right then and there I could take my background of healthcare, environmental sustainability, and Public Policy and make a real change. His class brought my life together in a way that I had never overtly acknowledged.
Which other classes besides Professor Bartling’s influenced your decision to seriously consider EPA jobs — and how?
Sustainable Development with Dr. Bartling also helped me truly understand Environmental Policy from both a policy and ecological viewpoint. Also fundamental in my environmental policy classes was Applied Urban and Environmental Economics. How can you save the planet without money? How do the policy actors feel about the environment, and how does it affect their bottom line? This class influenced me to work in the government and helped me understand environmental economics on a global scale.
The difficult roadblocks
We already sort of mentioned some roadblocks you faced but can you help us all understand the bigger picture of the challenges you faced as an undergrad? How did those challenges inspire you to do what you do today?
I dropped out of college, twice: once in 2002 after I tore my ACL playing flag football and my Division 1 basketball scholarship was revoked because of “reckless behavior” and again in 2007 when my professor told me “maybe school isn’t for you Amber” and I found out I had ADHD. Then, I failed nursing school in 2007 because I “didn’t take it seriously.” I came back to it in 2008 and took the Texas Nursing Boards in 2008 after living in my car for a few days and slept in the parking lot of the testing facility because I did not have gas money and did not want to miss the state test. (I passed!)
Years later, I walked into DePaul Welcome Center looking for directions home … and my life was changed at that moment. I enrolled within 3 weeks and am humbled to say I have studied abroad twice, had a full-tuition academic scholarship, am a McNair Scholar, and graduated Cum Laude. I also worked 40 hours a week and rode the train from my overnight nursing home job to DePaul every day to take classes.
That’s all to say I am inspired to show my sons that hard work pays off. No more, no less. I am blessed to have the ability to live every day and do not want to disappoint by being lazy. So many others are not as fortunate to be able to live, to have hope for brighter days, so I want to set an example. Show folks that every day is a blessing; no matter how dark, the sun will come out tomorrow — just give it time. DARE TO DREAM! But have a baseline for success. A dream without a plan is just a waste of time.
Advice for students who want to secure EPA jobs
What are your top three pieces of advice for current undergraduates hoping to land EPA jobs?
1: You need an extensive background in the roles you are aiming for. If your background does not reflect the quintessential need in a hire, you will never get a second look, because at least 100 others do. Keep your focus in mind and your overall goal in applying for EPA jobs. Understand what your specific role will be. For context, my job title is Legal Technician; and in my background, I worked in Federal Medicare and Medicaid healthcare compliance auditing, Healthcare Administration, and qualitative and quantitative research from my Bachelor’s in Public Policy.
2: The EPA is driven by environmental ethics, solidarity for justice, and contextual knowledge of awareness. You must be an embodiment of them all, period. The EPA is very passionate about its cause, and you must be too. Find a cause, ensure that it aligns with the EPA, and embody it.
3: Last, but most of all, love yourself and know that you are valuable and worthy of the cause. The EPA is a job at the end of the day and doesn’t define your greatness; in fact, nothing does but you. Be the best you can be and it will all work out how it is supposed to. That makes you stand out from the other 100 cream-of-the-crop applicants you reside with. Such a nondescript boring answer. However, it is honest. I told the interviewers verbatim when I walked in for my panel interview:
“I am honored just to be interviewed by the EPA (told them my Corpus Christi history) … but overall my background is healthcare, so since we have time, let us talk about my Study Abroad trip to China. Because y’all are Federal lawyers, I just flew in yesterday (true story) and I’m pretty sure you grabbed the wrong application from the pile. Tell you one thing, I am the best part of your interview process that you will have today. If you promise to be patient with me, work with me, teach me what you want me to do, I will humbly work just as hard with you, for the U.S. government, and the people I live to serve to be what I have been honored to do as an EPA employee.”Amber Davis 2020
Were there any connections that you think helped you secure your current role at the EPA? How did you approach building those connections?
No. None whatsoever. In fact, when they called me for a second interview I was in China when I received the referral. I deleted it because the Chinese Government flagged it as spam. I went to the interview without a second thought and was as candid as could be because I had absolutely nothing to go on. (Don’t do that, however. Prepare and understand the EPA mission; see above.)
Looking back, what would you have done differently in college?
I would have taken my DePaul career counseling much more seriously, practiced interviewing “different” fields, and expanded my comfort zone so I had a better understanding of what it takes to work with a vast set of professionals.
I am still humbled daily from what I don’t know and need to learn. Please, listen to the career counselors and humble yourself to maximize yourself. Allow your (lack of) people skills, your (lack of) knowledge to learn from the counselors, mentors, staff, and peers that are there to help you. Also, align yourself with like-minded people that you would work for free with; a job is a relationship…You have to know how much you are willing to deal with it on the bad days, for that’s when the job is just a job, and still worth it to you to continue.
The beauty of working with JB Pritzker was evident in the 1-hour commutes I would make unpaid 3 times a week for 6 months just to have an opportunity to work with a guy like him and his staff. On the contrary, I quit a separate corporate job six months in, making six figures because I hated every waking moment of working there. No amount of money for me was worth the drudgery of that job.
How might students approach securing EPA jobs faster?
Sustainability and fast track careers do not correlate at all. Sustainability is the antithesis of fast-tracking. Take your time, do things the right way, with positive purpose and thorough design — a magnification of diligence reflective in your career. The justifiable effort that is put forth in earning your value sustains your career, which is what we all yearn for in sustainability as a notion, right?
What it’s like to work at the EPA
What does your day-to-day look like for your current role at the EPA?
As a Legal Technician, here are some of the things I do:
- Provide administrative legal assistance for the Regional Counsel EPA Attorneys
- Draft legal documents
- Correspond emails
- Research legal statutes
- Modify case documents
- Compile and conduct video conferences
- Document travel for attorneys’ (essential) travel
- Conduct meetings and set up interviews
- Review docket notes for upcoming environmental regulation Department of Justice reviews
Every day I ensure the Attorney Counsel has the prepared documents of their caseload.
A message from Amber J. Davis: Thank you for allowing me to share with you my thoughts. It is an honor and a pleasure, and I hope to find life, liberty, and purpose. Take care of yourself, and one another.