Growing up in the chaotic economy of the 90’s, Clifton Washington saw the end-user consequences of the Dot Com Bubble burst from his childhood home outside Chicago. Long before becoming a first-generation college student, he understood the value of an education, and knew that it would require an education to pursue the life he wanted.
“I was part of the latchkey generation. When I woke up from school my parents weren’t home, and when I came back from school they weren’t home either,” says Washington, a graduate student with the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.
“At the age of seven I had my own set of house keys, and when I got home I would make my brother and I a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to hold us over until dinner.”
While in high school, Washington played football and competed on the wrestling team. He had his sights set on college after graduation, with the goal of becoming a first-generation college graduate. His father, originally from Jamaica, came to the United States as an adult and worked as a bus driver in the nearby city. His mother worked as a package sorter for United Parcel Service and, including Clifton, the pair had four children. That meant having his parents pay for college was out of the question.
“I always had somewhat of an interest in the military, when I spoke with the recruiter, he had two simple questions. ‘Are you going to college?’ and ‘How are you going to pay for it?” Washington said. “I didn’t have an answer, and I knew I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself, so I enlisted.”
Washington joined the U.S. Army and became an infantryman shortly after. He spent a bulk of his off-duty time at the local Distance Learning Center, taking classes offered by the Army on everything from leadership, Jordanian and Middle Eastern cultural courses, and the technical knowledge of military tradecraft.
He also managed to complete his undergraduate degree while he was in the military. Washington graduated from Robert Morris University with a degree in economics. During his enlistment he was deployed to the Kingdom of Jordan for Operation Spartan Shield. Having gone from the suburbs of Chicago to the remote Syrian border, Washington realized he enjoyed the intricacies of working with foreign governments.
“Once their training was complete, we would patrol the Syrian border with them until we received the next iteration of soldiers,” Washington said.
During one of the patrols with the Jordanians, Washington was standing on the edge of an embankment when the ground beneath his feet gave way. He was fully loaded with protective equipment at the time, adding more than an additional 50 pounds to his overall weight.
“I fell and my weight came down on my wrist, I didn’t think much of it at first. It hurt, but I didn’t think it was that bad. From there it just got worse, to the point that I couldn’t pick anything up with my right hand, I had lost all my grip,” Washington said.
For more than a year he endured surgeries and rehabilitation, but ultimately the injury would lead to the need to leave the military. He first found employment running risk assessments for insurance companies involving the petroleum and natural gas industries. The work wound up requiring a lot of typing though, something that Clifton found challenging with his injury.
Trying to figure out what new path to take in life, Washington reflects on his experiences speaking with Foreign Service Officers (FSO) from the U.S. Department of State while in Jordan. He had learned about their job, and how to become an FSO. As a veteran with overseas experience, he would certainly look favorable on a job application for foreign service, but he needed to obtain a master’s degree that would contribute to the work he wanted to do.
“I was looking at several places for graduate school, George Mason University in Virginia, New York University, and Syracuse,” said Washington. “I chose Syracuse because the Maxwell School of Citizenship has an excellent reputation in Washington, D.C., and in government agencies. I also love the fact that Syracuse University supports its veterans and has a close-knit veteran community.”
When not busy with classwork, which he says is rare, Washington has enjoyed a few opportunities to get out and explore Central New York. He says he enjoys spending what time he can on the local mountains skiing and getting out to explore places like nearby Letchwork State Park.
After graduation, he says he would like to work for the Department of State, specifically dealing with energy policy, but before he starts down that journey he wants to continue his education here at Syracuse University by completing a second master’s degree in public administration.