Alumna Alyssa Trometter: Proving the worth of a PhD outside academia

Californian-born Alyssa Trometter has a PhD in history from the Faculty of Arts and is the Deputy Director of External Affairs at the Clinton Foundation in New York City. We recently spoke to her about her work in higher education, her time in Melbourne, and how her PhD helped establish an international career.

What led you to study in Melbourne in the first place?

I grew up on the west coast of the United States, but when I started studying at a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts, I knew that I wanted to have a study abroad experience. I was taking Native American Studies with Professor Gwenn Miller, who was (and still is) the strongest female role model a budding historian could hope for. It was Professor Miller who said I had to think about going to Australia on a year of study abroad. She saw the opportunity for me to study Aboriginal history before I saw the connection.

Once in Melbourne, I formed a great relationship with Professor Gary Foley, who taught Indigenous Studies to international students at the University of Melbourne at the time. Both Professor Miller and Professor Foley provided me with the guidance necessary to write an undergraduate thesis, focused on how education was utilised as a tool for Indigenous assimilation in both the U.S. and Australia. After I finished my degree, they encouraged me to come back to do my PhD.

How do you remember your time as a study abroad student?

The time in Melbourne sparked my awareness of globalisation and internationalisation. It informed my development at a very critical juncture, when I was just about to turn 20 and was coming from an all-American mindset.

When I came to live at Newman College in Melbourne, I had the privilege of meeting students from all over the world. It was also a melting pot in the classroom. Linking up with students from lots of different cultures and backgrounds made me realise that we all share a lot in common. Our fears are the same; what we want in life is the same. The idea of a connected world wasn’t scary anymore and all I saw were possibilities.

Alyssa Trometter
Alyssa Trometter. Image supplied.

What was the focus of your PhD?

I originally planned to focus on the Native American Red Power movement and its ties to Aboriginal activism, but an opportunity came up through Professor Foley. Bruce McGuinness, an activist who spearheaded Black Power in Victoria, passed away, leaving diligently kept records of the movement behind. Professor Foley accessed these materials and, over a coffee at The Fitz, handed me a USB with primary sources - pictures, newspaper clippings, letters - all outlining the Black Power movement and the rise of the Australian Black Panther Party in Brisbane. One look at these materials and I knew I had to switch the direction of my thesis.

Where did your interest in Indigenous studies come from?

It really came from my own family exploration of my grandfather's background. He was born in 1917 and wound up in a contentious foster home in Texas that he never spoke of. There's a lot of speculation on his background. Later on in his life, after he had a fulfilling career in the Marines and as an esteemed football coach in San Diego, he located his biological mother. She was on a Native American reservation in Oklahoma, and (according to my grandmother) the reunion did not go as planned. This encounter was only ever spoken about by my grandma, who was instructed to stay in the car and not say a word. And she didn't say a word until he passed away when I was very young - it was certainly a different generation! This oral history, this family history, took hold of me in my teens. Having grown up with a family member whose background was so speculative made me want to explore what happened on those Native American communities in Oklahoma on my own. My grandparents didn't have access to a college education - it was such a privilege for me to have a university's backing for my research.

Why did you decide not to pursue academia when you finished your PhD?

After I finished my undergraduate degree, I worked for a year in college admissions in the States. I loved it, but I left because I wanted to go to grad school and it seemed like the right time with the right topic. When I entered the PhD, I saw it as a pathway to explore academia, but I also hoped that I could go back into higher ed administration if I wanted to, and that people within the higher ed ecosystem would see my PhD as something of value.

The more time I spent on research, the more I realised I wasn't best suited for that type of lifestyle. Academia is very competitive, and though I did meet people who loved collaboration, I saw that it could be very lonely too. You’re doing a lot of research on a topic that no-one else knows about except for your supervisors, and you only meet with them once every two or three weeks. It can be a lonely road.

When it came to pursuing a post-doc, I knew I didn't want it to be research-focused and I craved a steady work/life balance.

How did you end up working for the Clinton Foundation?

I started at the Foundation as a post-doc in 2015, after completing my PhD at the University of Melbourne. The American Council of Learned Societies and the Andrew Mellon Foundation support post-doc fellowships at a range of companies who host recently-minted PhDs from the humanities through the Public Fellows program. They're basically proving that PhDs can do lots of things outside academia. I thought originally that I'd only be there for the two years of the fellowship, and that when I finished hopefully other NGOs or academic institutions would see value in me getting this sought-after fellowship. But two years went by, and I knew I wanted to stay on, so I applied for a role on staff.

Alyssa and colleagues
Alyssa and colleagues from the Clinton Foundation volunteering at City Harvest, a charity that distributes fresh produce to communities in need. Image supplied.

What is your current role there?

I oversee the Clinton Global Initiative University External Affairs team. We support students who are developing social impact projects. Our year-round program provides a curriculum, mentorship and an annual event when we bring students together from all over the world. We've had students from all 50 US states and over 90 countries at our annual gatherings. Our next event is at the University of Edinburgh from 17-19 April, 2020 and it is the first time we are taking the annual student event to a campus outside of the United States. I can't wait.

In a time when academia is sometimes under attack, I think there's a lot to be said for universities linking up people from different cultures and opening the path for constructive dialogue and promoting active listening. I think we need more of that. Facilitating intercultural connections is definitely a passion project for me, especially because I benefited so much from the cross-cultural connections that I made while at the University of Melbourne. It is an absolute privilege to attend university and I decided as an undergraduate that I was going to commit my time to making a difference in the world. It is an honour to support undergraduate and graduate students as they tackle some of the world’s most pressing challenges. The CGI U community inspires me every single day to do more with each day that I have.

What are your hopes for the next few years?

I remain incredibly hopeful that people will continue to see the power of working together in bridging divisions. I believe it starts with dialogue and rests on active listening. Really, it’s all about discovering the power of the collective. On a personal note, last year I started to come to an actual table with family members, who hold different political views to my own, to share a meal. It was over food that I rediscovered we are so much more alike than we are different. I want to keep coming to that table over the next few years and I am hopeful for the conversations to come, the memories we will continue to make and share.

Banner image: Alyssa Trometter speaking at UC Berkeley. Image: Max Orenstein / Clinton Foundation.