Michele Malvesti : From State Department Intern to White House Counter-Terrorism Director

By Amal Ga’al:

On Monday afternoon in Sterling Library’s International Room, Michele Malvesti, Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute, led a rapt audience into her past. Today, she is a Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute and Vice President of the Intelligence, Security, and Reconnaissance Group at Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC)—a top defense contractor—but it hasn’t been long since she was an undergraduate trying to figure out what to do with her life. En route to her current status, she held several positions from terrorist analyst at the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to Senior Director for Combatting Terrorism Strategy at the White House. Malvesti credits her impressive career to a mixture of hard work, luck and effective networking.

Michele Malvesti spoke in Sterling Library on how she kept smiling even as she climbed the selective rungs of the national-security career ladder. (Jackson Institute).

Many of the students attending the event wanted to gain insight into the mysterious field of intelligence, and Malvesti didn’t disappoint. She walked the audience through her academic and work experience – starting with her days at the University of North Carolina as an undergraduate student in Political Science. Like many Yale students, she sampled a variety of disciplines before choosing her major, a decision guided by reason more than undying passion – she didn’t want to miss out on a discipline she might end up loving. Finally, an internship with the State Department as a junior not only informed her interest in security, but allowed her to get her foot in the door of the office she’d—metaphorically—someday inhabit.

Throughout her talk, Malvesti stressed the importance that mentors played in developing her career. Her supervisor at the State Department internship and her family contacts along with her own persistence secured her first job as a Middle East terrorist analyst for JSOC. In the interest of being transparent, Malvesti told the audience that she comes from a military family and that her background did give her some leverage in finding her first job straight out of college. However, her family contacts alone did not lead to her employment. Strong performance at the State Department and relationship she cultivated with her employer were vital elements of her success.

Whether students are interested in joining what the intelligence community or find U.S. counter-terrorism strategy completely off-putting, Malvesti’s advice took some of the mystery out of choosing a field of interest and advancing to a high-level career within it. She advocates for keeping one’s options open and growing one’s employment repertoire in order to learn new skillsets. As we all know, there is no easy route to success, but Malvesti’s experience should give students an idea of where to direct their efforts.

Amal Ga’al ’14 is in Saybrook College. Contact her at amal.gaal@yale.edu.