Making a difference for global youth and helping the U.S. deliver in the international arena
How winning a Service to America Medal propelled one public servant—and his work—to new heights in government
Since 2001, the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals®, or Sammies, have been the premier awards program for federal employees. Considered the “Oscars” of government service, the Sammies demonstrate why an effective government is critical to our democracy, highlighting the federal workforce’s most significant accomplishments in protecting our health, safety and well-being. Since its inception, the program has honored more than 660 public servants and helped inspire others to enter government. Read more to learn how winning a Sammies primed one leader to build the State Department’s global youth portfolio and advance his career in government.
Before he began work as a Director for Global Engagement and Multilateral Diplomacy at the White House, Andy Rabens had launched a promising State Department career focused on engaging young leaders and foreign publics around the world—with travels taking him to 70-plus countries in all corners of the globe, from Beijing to Baghdad, Jerusalem to Johannesburg, Kyiv to Kampala, and Lima to Luang Prabang.
But Rabens’ early successes might have gone less noticed—both within and outside government—had he not won a Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal®, the nation’s premier honor recognizing excellence in the federal workforce.
Named for the Partnership’s late founder, Samuel J. Heyman, the Sammies have recognized over 660 public servants working in more than 220 agencies, subcomponents and offices since 2001.
Sammies honorees have been saluted by current and former presidents, senior government leaders and dozens of notable celebrities. Each year, the Sammies showcase the many ways public servants impact our lives for the better and demonstrate the critical role that effective government plays in our democracy.
In 2013, Rabens won the Sammies’ Emerging Leaders Medal, a recognition reserved for federal employees under the age of 35.
The award—punctuated by a trip to the White House to meet President Obama—helped propel his progression from a 30-year-old public diplomacy officer to the Special Advisor for Global Youth Issues at the State Department to a director role at the National Security Council.
Along the way, Rabens helped build out the U.S. government’s global youth engagement portfolio—a robust suite of programs and policies to strengthen relationships with and further empower the next generation of leaders worldwide while also building bridges with American counterparts.
These efforts included programs such as:
- The Young African Leaders Initiative.
- The Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative.
- The Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative.
- The Young Transatlantic Innovation Leaders Initiative.
- The Global Entrepreneurship Summits.
- The Emerging Young Leaders’ Award and Exchange Program.
- And more.
Collectively the programs have reached thousands of young people across the globe and spanned three different administrations—the Obama, Trump and Biden presidencies.
More recently, Rabens has helped the U.S. deliver in the multilateral diplomatic arena— coordinating White House efforts to advance U.S. interests within the G7, the G20 and the Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, or APEC—three key vehicles for engaging with allies, partners and competitors to tackle pressing global challenges.
Today, Rabens acknowledges that winning a Service to America Medal served as a powerful launching pad to elevate the global youth agenda and further his civil service career.
“The Sammies served as a powerful vehicle to shine a spotlight on public diplomacy and youth engagement work. They also inspired me to think bigger about where I—and the larger U.S. government as a whole—could have greater impact going forward and empower larger numbers of young global leaders through our programs and efforts,” he said.
People had described the Service to America Medals as the ‘Oscars’ for the federal government. And it lived up to the hype as a truly unique opportunity for civil servants—and the issues that they worked on—to be spotlighted, lifted up and celebrated from all different types of government agencies, departments and bureaus.”
Andy Rabens overviews his youth engagement work for the 2013 Service to America Medals program.
9/11 as a call to service
Rabens’ call to public service began just after 9/11. The attacks occurred during his first week as a Harvard University undergraduate and sparked his interest in American foreign policy and global issues.
He pursued coursework in foreign affairs, in turn reassessing his interests in wanting to become a professional tennis player, working to overcome his fears around public speaking, and earning a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Harvard and a master’s degree from the London School of Economics, respectively.
Rabens came into the State Department as a Presidential Management Fellow in 2008 working for the Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.
He then embarked on what became more than a decade-long commitment to empowering young people at home and abroad through the building of youth programs designed to inspire active citizenship, encourage political activism and create global networks of young leaders across the globe—including here in the United States.
Rabens completed stints as a public diplomacy officer and a youth outreach coordinator at the U.S. Embassies in Tbilisi, Georgia, Amman, Jordan, and at the Consulate in Jerusalem. He also served as a staffer in the Office of Policy, Planning, and Resources for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and as an advisor in the Bureau of African Affairs, where he worked on the Young African Leaders Initiative.
By 2013, Rabens had parlayed this experience into a special advisor role within the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, where he led and oversaw U.S. youth programming and policy in the Middle East and North Africa.
The Sammies awarded Rabens its Emerging Leaders Medal for his work during his time at the bureau—highlighted by his efforts to organize the Active Citizens Summit, a 10-day convening of more than 50 young leaders from the Middle East and North Africa to share ideas, develop concrete projects to implement in local communities, and build meaningful relationships across the region and in the United States.
“The Active Citizen Summit reaffirmed my deeply held belief that people—and particularly young people—from different parts of the globe are much more similar than we are willing to admit,” he said.
“After the first couple of days of guarded and tense discussions where delegates from feuding places were cautious to engage with one another, young leaders broke down political walls, connected as people, found common interests, shared overarching aspirations and created common cause, bonds and relationships for the future.”
Andy Rabens on bipartisanship and the Sammies.
The Service to America Medals as a platform for elevating issues: Global youth and government service
Alarmed by this decline in employee morale, NASA leaders turned to Best Places to Work to help them revitalize and reinvigorate their workforce.
Charles Bolden, NASA’s administrator from 2009-2017, admitted that he did not pay much attention to the data until Buchholz explained its potential value to him. She had previously helped make the Nuclear Regulatory Commission the top-ranked midsize agency in the rankings as an associate director for human resources and, as a result, knew firsthand how the data could help federal leaders improve their employee engagement.
She recalled combing through NASA’s older Best Places data and picking out questions and topics that lined up with the general issues she wanted NASA to tackle. Bolden was immediately sold.
“Once she did that and I understood it, then I really began to promote it … and let [supervisors and leaders know] that we wanted to do the best we could do and become the best leadership team we could,” he said.
With guidance from Buchholz, Bolden started to use Best Places to Work data to inform his leadership style and address employees’ growing disconnect from NASA’s mission. He made it a point to always tell staff that the work they did was important and launched an “Ask Me Anything” virtual program that enabled thousands of employees to speak with him directly.
These changes fostered a culture of transparency and accountability across the agency, and helped employees recreate the sense of community that had eroded with the end of the shuttle program.
“Those very simple things really started helping people feel connected to each other and to the mission,” Buchholz said.
“Any time [Best Places data] talked about the agency and agency leadership,” Bolden added. “I took it personally. I had to clean my own leadership style up before I could talk to anybody else about getting themselves in order.”
Buchholz also used Best Places data to create a workplace that rewarded innovation. After analyzing data that showed employees often avoided risk out of fear that failure would cause catastrophic disaster or hurt the agency’s budget, she initiated the “Lean Forward, Fail Smart Awards.”
The program allowed NASA employees to nominate each other for scientific advances or accomplishments that emerged from failed attempts at innovation. The nominations—submitted in the form of one-minute videos—were posted online for an agencywide vote. Winners received formal feedback on their work from NASA leadership.
Buchholz credited the awards show with making failure less of a taboo subject at NASA—a critical development that has helped agency leaders build a culture of innovation that continues to enable new advances in space travel.
When she heard one NASA leader argue at a meeting that the agency had to accept more risk and “push to the point of failure,” she knew things had changed.
“That was a different conversation than we were having two years ago,” Buchholz said. “You know that you have operationalized something when you hear your own words come back to you.”
Broader impact and larger voice
Rabens’ Sammies acceptance speech at the Mellon Auditorium was a formative experience that opened his eyes to the possibility of expanding his voice and broadening his impact.
“That speech gave me the confidence to further overcome my fear of public speaking and find ways to better utilize my voice when opportunity presented itself,” he said.
In the months after receiving his Sammies award in 2013, Rabens was elevated to become the State Department’s Special Advisor for Global Youth Issues—the principal representative at the Department for Global Youth Issues and a role that allowed him to help oversee the agency’s youth engagement portfolio. He held this position until 2018.
The role was Rabens’ most public-facing one to date and positioned him to advise State Department leadership—all the way up to the Secretary—on meaningful ways to engage, empower and partner with young people around the world.
On to the White House
Taking on these new responsibilities prepared Rabens for his next career move—a two-year detail at the White House working at the National Security Council as a Director for Global Engagement and Multilateral Diplomacy.
During his time at NSC, Rabens has served as the White House lead staffer for the G7, the G20, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC, portfolios.
He is also responsible for coordinating the interagency process to ensure alignment on White House priorities ahead of the G7, G20, and APEC Leaders’ Summits, including negotiating with international counterparts on deliverables, communiques and joint statements.
Rabens notes that his prior experience taking part in multilateral youth engagement efforts at the United Nations and past work on the Y7 and Y20 youth summits have helped equip him for this NSC role.
He lights up when talking about this work and his passion for multilateral diplomacy, saying that he appreciates the relational elements and energizing challenge of working with partners, allies and strategic competitors to find overlapping interests and areas of convergence on pressing global challenges—including ending the COVID-19 pandemic, generating sustainable and inclusive economic growth, confronting the climate crisis, and addressing broader inequities in a way that affirms the dignity of all people.
Rabens views his Service to America Medal as a highlight of his government career to date and believes that the program can help inspire and catapult other young leaders to chart a similar course.
“The Sammies are a good reminder for young people in government—or exploring careers in government—that there is a role for all of us to play in our communities and country. Through public service, there are meaningful ways to harness the unique skill sets that each of us bring to the table to shape the world that we want to see. And that it is possible to have meaningful impact across political and partisan lines, well beyond the far too polarized nature of our daily political environment,” he said.
The Sammies are a good reminder for young people in government—or exploring careers in government—that there is a role for all of us to play in our communities and country.”