From Voter Registration Volunteer to Presidential Management Fellow
Two-time Kent State University alumnus Eli Kalil, who is finishing up his first year as a Presidential Management Fellow at Louis Stokes Cleveland Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, said his degrees prepared him well for the field of healthcare administration.
Kalil, 26, was selected from among more than 8,000 candidates nationally to serve as a presidential management fellow, a role created in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter as a leadership development program to groom future generations of leaders for federal administrative positions.
He will spend two years as a fellow working as a health system specialist at the Cleveland VA hospital, where he believes he has found his calling working for those who served our country.
Kalil, a 2015 graduate from Edgewood High School in Ashtabula, Ohio, had a very non-traditional educational journey.
He started at Hiram College, in Portage County, where he played basketball his first year and became involved in the Democratic Party’s coordinated campaign, working to register voters for the 2016 presidential election.
“I was just registering voters and participating in civic functions on campus and as the year was ending, I was actually offered a job to work on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign,” he said.
After talking over the move with his parents, the opportunity seemed too good to resist, so Kalil accepted the position and moved back home to Ashtabula, and transferred to Kent State’s Ashtabula Campus so he could take classes around this work schedule and continue his education.
Following the election, Kalil was approached by Sean O’Brien, a newly elected state senator, who offered him a job as a legislative aide in his Columbus, Ohio office. Then Kalil moved to online-only classes, to continue his undergraduate studies in applied communications while living in Columbus.
Two years later, he returned to Ashtabula and completed his bachelor’s degree in 2019, where he was selected as the student commencement speaker for the Ashtabula Campus ceremony. Kalil’s next move was to start his own small marketing company, which promoted local businesses and groups in Ashtabula County, while still working on some local political campaigns. He also enrolled in Kent State’s online master’s program in public administration (MPA), which he completed in 2020.
For the next few years, Kalil remained active politically and served for a time as chairman of the Ashtabula County Democratic Party and later as jury commissioner for Ashtabula County Common Pleas Court.
“I could start applying what I was learning during my MPA program to my actual job,” he said.
After about a year on the job, a friend suggested he apply to the Presidential Management Program, which requires applicants to have at least a master’s degree.
“He said, 'You know, this could be an advantageous program for you. It’s pretty prestigious and it’s difficult to get into. But if you’re lucky enough to get in, it could change the trajectory of your career.' So, I applied for the fellowship and was accepted as a finalist for the class of 2022,” Kalil said.
Each year, the program receives 8,000 to 9,000 applications, of which about 1,000 finalists are selected. The group is then offered to federal agencies across the country, where administrators can then decide who they want to interview for open positions.
“I had three or four different offers from federal agencies across the country, but I elected to take this position with the Cleveland VA,” Kalil said. “The program is designed to turn us into executive leaders across the federal government and in all different realms. In my position here I am assisting our executive leadership team with strategic planning, facility operations, different staffing projects with human resources, data analysis and external affairs – really the whole gamut.”
He accepted the post over a job with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in Virginia because he wanted to remain in Northeast Ohio to be near his family and home community.
“This opportunity was right in my backyard and healthcare administration was never a sector I really thought I would see myself in, but with my undergrad degree in applied communications and my master's in public administration, things were always broadly open for me,” Kalil said. “It’s been great so far and I’m learning a lot every day.”
“I'm working with an influential, diverse group of individuals who have been great in my leadership development. The medical center itself and the individuals here in leadership are very supportive of us getting the training hours and really building us into executive leaders,” Kalil said. “There's a lot of information to take in. It’s nice because I'm able to use my skills from my degrees at Kent State and actually apply them in real life.”
The program also has helped him find a career he feels passionate about.
“I would love to continue progressing up the executive leadership chain at the VA, to potentially one day take over management of a medical center at some point,” he said.
While he will always have a soft spot for politics and campaigns, Kalil said he feels as though he has found his calling with the VA.
“Being able to be a part of an organization that's larger than myself and going to work every single day, completely understanding the mission and knowing that my work is valuable and is directly affecting people, I can't beat that. It's a great mission to be able to follow and try to uphold,” Kalil said.
“I'm lucky to have different communities all over that I consider family wherever I go, and Kent State is definitely one of those,” he said. “I still have a really good relationship with quite a few of the professors within the MPA program and I’m still close with several of my teachers. Susan Stocker, who was dean of the Ashtabula Campus when I was there, is a very close friend of mine and I was just recently appointed to the Kent State Alumni Association National Board of Directors.”
His Kent State degrees and connections, Kalil said, are serving him well. “I feel like the skill sets I developed in school are being directly applied in my real-life work.”