Driving toward public service 

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Driving toward public service 

Ranita Opoku-Sarfo went from intern to full-time employee at the Department of Transportation. Today, she’s paving the way for others to do the same. 

As a student at Randolph College, Ranita Opoku-Sarfo was always “chasing purpose”—as a student government president, as an intern at the U.S Embassy in Mauritania, and as a peer health educator in Uganda, where she taught biological and reproductive health.  

But it wasn’t until Opoku-Sarfo became a Future Leaders in Public Service intern at the Department of Transportation that she decided to launch a career in government. The three-month paid internship program, launched by the Partnership with support from Schmidt Futures, opened Opoku-Sarfo’s eyes to the wide array of job specialties in federal service and provided a network that inspired her to pursue full-time federal work. 

With just under 7% of full-time federal employees under the age of 30—and roughly one-third of the federal workforce eligible to retire by the end of 2024—Opoku-Sarfo’s experience is a near-perfect case study in the power of paid internships to recruit the next generation of public servants, who are critical to our government’s ability to solve future challenges.  

“Prior to the Future Leaders program, I might have jumped into the private sector upon graduation, but because of my experience, I am starting my career in the federal government instead,” Opoku-Sarfo said.  

Ranita Opoku-Sarfo, HR specialist, Office of the Secretary, Department of Transportation
Ranita Opoku-Sarfo, HR specialist, Office of the Secretary, Department of Transportation

Hunting for an internship  

It all started with a simple Google search.  

Needing to complete an internship to earn her master’s degree in public health at the University of Lynchburg, Opoku-Sarfo began looking for relevant opportunities around the Washington, D.C., area. The Future Leaders program, which offered 10-12-week internships at the departments of Commerce or Transportation, did not seem like an initial match.  

However, unlike most internships, the program was open to graduate students, it had a public service mission and it was paid. This latter point was crucial: The $4,000 stipend would cover summer course dues and enable Opoku-Sarfo to avoid taking out a large student loan.  

“It set the internship apart and motivated me to explore federal opportunities,” she said.  

Eventually, her resume made it into the hands of her future supervisor at DOT’s Office of the Secretary. Impressed, she asked Opoku-Sarfo to interview and then hired her.   

Finding meaning  

When Opoku-Sarfo joined the department, it was hard at work implementing President Biden’s executive order on building a more diverse, equitable and inclusive federal workforce. As part of this work, DOT leaders sought to research opportunities to employ formerly incarcerated individuals in transportation and infrastructure projects funded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and launched a new DEIA strategic plan as well.   

Opoku-Sarfo’s main job was to research programs in the Washington, D.C., area, that work with these individuals to see if they would partner with DOT on its employment efforts—an initiative that continues today.  

The experience illustrated the breadth of work being done in government and overlapped with Opoku-Sarfo’s interest in reaching underserved populations in the public health field.    

“It turned out to be exactly what I wanted to do,” she said.  

Going full time 

As the internship wound down, Opoku-Sarfo used Future Leaders professional development, including events, webinars and networking opportunities, to help secure a full-time government job.  

Feeling pressured to land something before she graduated, she applied for both public and private sector positions. While her heart was in government, the slow federal hiring process became discouraging.  

Conversations with federal employees on a Future Leaders panel reassured her, as did a webinar on navigating USAJOBS. “Everyone told me I was doing the right things, and hearing from agency folks inspired me because I thought, ‘I could be them soon,’” she said.   

Things broke for Opoku-Sarfo when her supervisor notified her of an employee and labor relations opening at OST. She got the job through a direct-hiring authority, which allows agencies to hire qualified candidates for positions of need by bypassing certain civil service regulations.  

Before long, another opportunity presented itself. The person heading up DOT’s coordination of the Future Leaders program had left for a job at another agency, and the department needed an immediate replacement. 

She jumped at the chance to apply, eager to give back to a program that opened the door to government. Today, as an HR specialist at OST, she helps DOT onboard Future Leaders interns.  

Opoku-Sarfo said her current position was “meant to be” and that she views herself as “a bridge” to young people interested in public service. As for what she tells them when they join DOT? Be prepared for a rich and rewarding experience.  

“You can impact a lot of people in government, and there’s a place for you in public service—no matter what you are interested in,” she said.  

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