College grad finds niche in unexpected job in Afghanistan
November 5, 2013
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- For Jessica Flandro, there was no bright side to graduating college in debt and without a job. She did what many other new graduates were doing -- periodically visit her college's job announcement website, seeking any prospective employment out there.
Still, eight months after graduating, the then 23-year-old had no offers. With no work experience - except a telemarketing job -- Flandro was running out of options. With student loans coming due, she essentially applied for everything, including a potential job in Europe with a contracting company.
"The job was advertised for Germany. I speak German and I thought that would be perfect," recalled Flandro, who began studying German in middle school. "I thought it would be great to work in Europe."
Aside from college, Flandro had never been far from her family who reside in North Logan, Utah. Still, the prospect of working in Europe was exciting.
"I was hoping they would give me a call," the Brigham Young University -- Idaho, graduate said.
To her surprise they did just that and it was during the interview she learned the job location expanded to include Iraq, Kuwait or Egypt.
As time went by, Flandro thinks no more about it, then six months after the interview she received a call advising her she has one week to get to Germany to accept the job.
Unsure of the details, yet knowing she needed a job, Flandro depleted her savings, purchasing a one-way ticket. She arrived in Germany and was informed the job was in Afghanistan, providing education support to U. S. Service members and civilians.
Armed with a bachelor's degree in English, no aspiration for joining the military and even more hesitant about committing to a job in a war zone, Flandro seriously weighed her options. This would also be the longest time she'd be away from home.
"I almost called my parents to ask for a plane ticket back home," said Flandro, who had no ties to the military when she decided to accept the position. "But I thought, 'It's in a U. S. military environment, and hopefully they'll take care of me'. From what I'd heard, the military is protective."
Flandro accepted the job, in-processed and landed at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, working for the contracting company as a counselor aide.
"I only wanted to stay here for six months to pay off student loans, save money and get a better job," she said. "I didn't have management experience, didn't know anything about the military. I had to learn the military culture -- it's different."
After an eight-month stint, the self-reliant Flandro got that better job when she transitioned from contractor to a Department of Defense employee and unexpectedly found her niche in education services. The promotion to education services specialist brought with it invaluable management experience and provided a much needed service to troops at Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan.
Now 25 and at the end of a two-year stretch, Flandro said she's glad she took the initial job and not let her fear of being in a combat environment get in the way of a unique experience fresh out of college.
A Parker, Colo. native, Flandro settled into the job, learned valuable skills, and acquired experience as a manager, something she says wouldn't have happened had she taken another job right out of college.
Flandro said she's the second in charge at the education center and in addition to counseling service members on education benefits and testing; one of her primary functions is to ensure contractual agreements are fulfilled.
Future career possibilities have expanded because of the experience, Flandro says. But with her job ending, she has mixed feelings about leaving.
"I don't see myself ever choosing to outright be in the military," added Flandro. "I stayed so long because of the experience and giving back to the service members."
Flandro says she has met good people and made lasting friendships. One such friendship is that of Jennifer Anderson, a retired U.S. Air Force veteran who she met 11 months ago.
"Jessica arrived here impressionable and inexperienced," said Anderson. "I've had a front seat to her growth and see the benefits of her taking a job so far away from home -- she's passionate about the services she provides the troops and her job experience here is a good foundation and will help her future endeavors -- whether she decides to continue with another job or head straight to graduate school when she returns stateside."
Education services officer Kim Doherty, who has been Flandro's supervisor since November 2012, echoes those sentiments. She says finding an employee who sticks around is half the battle and Flandro will be missed.
"It's not terribly easy to fill these positions," said Doherty, a retired U.S. Navy veteran.
The education office provides continuing education services and resources for service members and civilians serving in KAF so they can keep up with their peers stateside. Doherty says it takes a special type of person to come to a war zone, have the level of commitment Flandro has and stay the course.
"There are not a lot of people jumping up and down to come down range," said Doherty, "Only two have completed a full year commitment. Many get here, say 'this is not for me,' and turn around and head home."
While Flandro looks back at her journey with a sense of accomplishment, she is also looking ahead to future opportunities with renewed excitement.
"I have tons more options now," Flandro said. "And if nothing pans out, I have grad school."