Rachel Rush Alum Q&A
Rush graduated from Anderson University in 2003, with a mass communications major, an emphasis in public relations and a major in Bible. Since then she has worked in communications in various government agencies. Though her current title is an “I.T. Specialist,” her work is still in communications.
Could you tell me a little bit about your career path since graduation?
My first job of note out of college was serving as AmeriCorps Volunteers In Service To America (VISTA) volunteer for a year.
During that time, I applied to graduate school. That next fall, I started at American University in D.C. where I got my master’s in public communications in a one-year program. After that, I started working as a federal employee.
I have worked at four federal agencies. All my previous jobs were straight communications work. I ended up working at VISTA headquarters, which is part of the Corporation for National and Community Service. I was their alumni relations and outreach specialist.
My second federal job was with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service. This is the agency that oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called Food Stamps. The agency also manages school meals, summer food programs, and other food assistance programs. I did a lot of publication work there and oversaw the name change on all the publications that the agency had from Food Stamps to SNAP, which took two years.
My next federal job was at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). It is an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). At SAMHSA, I was in the data statistics center. I was a writer-editor and helped them edit short reports and data spotlights. They would take one interesting statistic in substance abuse or mental health data, and then they would write a short report on it. Those publications got a lot of media attention, which was cool. And then I was the liaison to the agency-level Office of Communication. So I would coordinate with the press officer to do a press release and would coordinate answering questions when the media called, asking about those reports. We were also doing a lot of social media.
SAMHSA was fun because they had a sense of humor that not all the agencies I worked at did. They would put out a report on alcohol use in pregnant women on Mother’s Day. I also managed the website for my center, which was the largest part of SAMHSA.gov. I think we had over 20,000 data reports on our section of the site. It’s a pretty significant amount of content. SAMHSA.gov was redesigned when I was there, so I was managing our section’s redesign.
Then I moved to the Health Resources Services Administration (HRSA), which is where I am now. It also is an agency within HHS. My first job at HRSA was working for the Health Center Program. Community health centers are nonprofit health clinics that treat people no matter their ability to pay, and they often link people with other social services that are needed. I was in the division that did communications for the Health Center program, where I worked on a web redesign and wrote stories about health centers that were featured in the newsletter.
I started at the job I’m in now in March 2021. I’m in the Bureau of Health Workforce at HRSA, and I’m in an IT systems division. There are different certifications that you can get in the federal government to manage the large government contracts, and I am a Contracting Officer’s Representative (COR) level III, which is the highest certification in contract management. A contracting officer is a person who can sign a contract for the government. They can commit money to a contractor. So CORs manage the contract day-to-day and all the technical meetings and work with technical task leads on the behalf of the contracting officer.
I took this job to be the COR of the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB). The NPDB is a database that keeps record of medical licenses and malpractice actions for all types of medical professionals. So let’s say a hospital wants to hire a doctor. They’ll query the database to see if there are any malpractice actions against that person. They’ll check that they’re licensed to operate in whatever particular state they’re in. This prevents a medical practitioner from moving between states without a license and/or disclosing malpractice actions. This project is mandated by Congress and is used by the entire medical industry, so it’s a very visible, important project. It was an opportunity to take on large responsibility, even though it wasn’t directly in communications. I’ve been in the federal government for about 15 and a half years.
Is there anything from your degree in mass communication and public relations that has been beneficial to you in this career field?
Relationship building is the key. I’m constantly facilitating meetings, so being able to present things well, being able to speak persuasively and being able to articulate in plain language is important.
Writing and editing are also important, for sure. One of the things I’m working on right now is writing all the statements of work documents for four different call orders that I’m managing. And those documents are 40 to 60 pages long. And some of it is contract language that was given by the agency, but a lot of it is just detailing what the project is, what the contractors need to know to do the work and then listing all the tasks and the deliverables. Then it becomes the legal document of the contract.
I also use a lot of plain language, as I am often the go-between for highly technical people like developers that I work with and then the program staff. So I have to be able to explain the technical terms back and forth.
What are some challenging aspects of working in this area?
The challenge is the number of stakeholders I have. My current, primary contract is valued over $16 million annually. I am responsible for those budgets, and I also have the program staff who are like our client. If you think of it in a PR relationship, I have my client and I have this vendor contractor that I’m managing. I have my leadership, my supervisor, a lot of stakeholders and a large amount of money. And that in and of itself is the biggest challenge.
The other challenge is just working within the government environment. There’s a lot of bureaucratic red tape. The policies and procedures change a lot. Sometimes they’re communicated well. Sometimes you find out when they’re like, “Oh, you did this wrong.” And then you’re like, “Oh, well, can you tell me the new process?” So I’d say those are the two biggest challenges. Though I want to say that working for the government is rewarding too. I’ve been able to work on really fun projects and have seen how my work impacts the public.
And then one last question: is there a favorite project you’ve worked on or something you’re most proud of?
There are a couple of things. When I was in my first federal job working for the VISTA program, I helped create VISTA’s first social media pages. And this was back in the Myspace days, so this was pre-Facebook. It was Myspace, Flickr and YouTube. They never did anything like this, so I was lucky to work for a very forward-thinking agency because most were very slow to adapt to social media.
We did a photo campaign with our members and our alumni, and we encouraged them to take selfies. We weren’t calling them selfies at that time, but a photo of themselves flashing the “V” like a peace sign or “V for victory,” but it was “V for VISTA.” And it would be at their project where they were volunteering or in their hometown, and then in the caption they would tell what VISTA meant to them. And it’s crazy because that was in 2007 when we started that campaign, and they’re still doing it. It’s mostly more on Facebook and other platforms now, but they’re still doing it. So that was cool, the longevity of that project and that it’s still around.
Similar to that, I would say my other favorite was when I was at Food and Nutrition Service and while we were doing all these publications, we often went out to events and we gave our partners (food banks, food pantries and those types of organizations) brochures that told us about our programs. Well, they weren’t in plain language at all. It was very government-focused. We had nothing that was consumer-focused. So I was able to, again, serve as the COR on a contract with a plain language contractor, and we wrote a brochure. It was called “How to Get Food Help.” And it was still being circulated at the time I left; they have printed over a million copies a year.
It was a little booklet that was color-coded by audience type. If you were a senior or had children that were K-12, it would tell you what programs you were eligible for and how to apply. It was also on the fourth-grade reading level, and we made sure all the images were culturally competent. We also did plain language Spanish, which no one was doing at the time. I think it’s more common now, but instead of just taking the plain language English and translating it, I worked with the contractor who was a native Spanish speaker to do plain language Spanish and our Spanish tested on a fifth-grade level, which was good. So that was another huge impact project.
Michael Morehouse is a junior from Mishawaka, Indiana, majoring in public relations and minoring in writing. Michael is an associate with Fifth Street Communications®, a student-run public relations agency at Anderson University.