When in doubt, just take the risk

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This government employee has been on the federal payroll since graduation, but that wasn’t always her plan.

On this episode of Women of Washington, Gigi Schumm welcomed Alina Romanowski, deputy coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department. Romanowski has also held positions in the Defense Department, U.S. Agency for International Development and Central Intelligence Agency.

It was through the changes in her career that she realized how big of an influence you can become on yourself. She said she learned to be her own best career counselor.

“Probably the best advice I’ve ever received from one of my bosses when there was a very challenging situation was … you sort of have a choice to continue to drill down on an issue or to pursue the principle of the matter,” Romanowski said. “Knowing that the environment may not be so conducive to achieving your goal … this boss of mine said … ‘leave it alone for now. Come back to it later when things are different.’ I think that’s a piece of advice that I have learned and taken with me throughout my career.”

You have the choice to take a step back and look at the situation or your life from all angles, and make decisions accordingly, she said. In fact,Romanowski started college as a pre-med student and later on decided to pursue a different career. She realized that she found more passion in history and international relations than organic chemistry.

Romanowski traveled when she was young and was offered many positions in her career that may have taken her overseas, but she chose not to pursue them. She did not want to be separated from her family.

How did she end up in Washington? It’s kind of a funny story, she said.

“I actually had a dare from my roommate when the CIA was back on campus recruiting at the University of Chicago. He said: ‘Let’s go over there and fill out an application.’ … I got the job,” Romanowski said. “I had been looking around to the private sector [also], but things didn’t materialize. So, I thought this would be a really good way to start my career in international relations.”

In other words, she took the risk. It is dangerous to let the fear of tomorrow influence today and Romanowski said it is vital that you focus on doing a good job now. The right opportunities will always find you.

Alina Romanowski, State Department

She said it’s impractical to go into a career — such as law or medicine — just for the prestige. If you’re not passionate about the subject, do something different. Colleges give students the opportunity to expand their knowledge-base with different classes and sometimes changing your major 100 times is just part of the journey.

“You have no idea where your life is going to take you. So trying to plot it out and anticipate things is important I think to understand what you’re interested in, but frankly, you’re going to have opportunities put in front of you that you may not even anticipate,” she said. “Those are the moments that you have to consider about what you want to do. I’d also say you have to take risks.”

She said it’s important to make up your mind early in your career to take those risks.

This is how you learn what your strengths are, and you ultimately end up where you’re supposed to be.