Nicole Nelson-Jean: Connecting Internationally Through Great Books
July 15, 2022 | By Eve Tolpa
Nicole Nelson-Jean (AGI00) is the Associate Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Field Operations at the United States Department of Energy (DOE), Office of Environmental Management (EM), located in Washington, D.C. She received a bachelor’s in political science from Grambling State University, an HBCU (historically Black college and university) in Louisiana, and after attending St. John’s Graduate Institute, she earned a second master’s, in strategic security studies, from Washington, D.C.–based National Defense University.
Tell me about your job.
Nicole Nelson-Jean: Environmental Management is the largest cleanup program in the world. There are 107 sites across the entire United States with contamination from our nuclear weapons activities and the scientific research related to our national nuclear weapons program. About 30 years ago a special program was put in place to do the cleanup work for all of those activities. We have now closed many of those sites and are down to 15 active sites across the United States. I am responsible for the field operations for all of those sites, which includes safety and security, operational activities and quality assurance of those activities, and protection of human health and the environment.
I also have under my portfolio the chief engineering of all of those activities, as well as technology development. Within the technology development portfolio, I oversee our EM Minority-Serving Institutions Partnership Program (MSIPP)—a program that is about $56 million—where we work with minority schools across the country to bring students into STEM, cyber security, and additive manufacturing areas though grants, competitive research awards, and a post-doctoral program. Our program is probably now almost $8 billion, when you look at our overall work across the country. That number is not just EM’s portfolio but rather MSIPP in the DOE as a whole. It’s really exciting.
What brought you to the St. John’s Graduate Institute?
During my undergraduate work, I had an opportunity to do an internship/fellowship at Los Alamos National Laboratory, in New Mexico, which has a rich history in the weapons program. I met some pretty amazing people during that time, and I ended up working there through my undergraduate years. My father, who is a Vietnam War veteran, also worked at Los Alamos, and I looked around at grad schools in the New Mexico area. I’ve always been an avid reader, and it was the Santa Fe campus that I was drawn to.
But in the middle of deciding that Santa Fe was the place I wanted to be, I got an opportunity to go to Washington and work at the Department of Energy headquarters. I found out there was also a campus in Annapolis, so I had the best of both worlds. I was working as a full-time contractor for the federal government, and I was going to school full-time in the evenings.
Was there anything about the Graduate Institute that surprised you?
The Great Books Program at St. John’s really supported me in what I was doing in my regular work because I worked a lot in Russia at that time. I was reading authors like Dostoevsky, and I could converse with my European and Russian colleagues on an international scale about a lot of the authors I was reading. Frankly, they were very impressed that I was so well-versed, and it made our bonds closer. It was a great fit, my graduate schoolwork and working internationally at that time.
Much of my career was spent in the National Nuclear Security Administration; I spent 28-plus years on the weapons side doing international negotiation and a lot of international work: South America, North America, Europe, Russia—you name it, I traveled there.
Choosing St. John’s was something that was an interest for me personally more than professionally. I didn’t get how much it would help and support me professionally until I was already out and I started having conversations with my international counterparts.
How much respect I received by being so well-read—I was kind of taken aback. I lived in Japan, I lived in Austria, I traveled to Russia for almost 12 years, I went to South America a lot. I think the perception about many Americans—unless you are in a university environment—is that we’re not that well-versed in the Great Books or history.
But there was also the ability to negotiate and to have different conversations with different people in different parts of the world with different backgrounds and different understandings.
Are there other skills that you honed in at St. John’s that you use in your career?
My department is very large, it’s very diverse, and my agency is very technical. I’ve been able to be very successful in a very technical agency and not have a technical degree. Most of the people that I manage or lead are engineers or physical scientists. I’ve been successful in that because of the diversity of education I’ve had and the critical thinking I learned at St. John’s.
Being an executive in government requires that I make pretty big decisions. I have an $8 billion program that I’m responsible for—I can’t take days and days to comprehend things. Having that training through the Great Books has really supported me in being able to grasp things really quickly and make those critical decisions and ask those critical questions—to the point where people will say, “I didn’t know you didn’t have a technical background. The questions you asked were so detailed. How did you know that?”
Tell me about the National Defense University.
It’s a graduate school owned by the military, but they reserve a small amount of seats for exceptional federal employees. When you are in the program you are in it full-time, so it’s like you’re going to work every day. You’re in class with military officers from all over the world, from Europe, Africa, Asia, as well as America.
What was your education prior to St. John’s Graduate Institute?
I had a very different trajectory when I first started at undergraduate school. I thought I wanted to go to law school, I thought I wanted to be a sports agent sitting on the beach with LeBron James! My second year of undergraduate school I met a really great mentor who happened to be a physicist, and she took me in a different direction when she took me to Washington with her and I started working at Los Alamos. I saw that I could serve my country without being in the military, and I did not know that when I was young. I’m the daughter of a Vietnam veteran, and I knew I wasn’t a military person.
It sounds like you’ve been able to see opportunities for yourself that might not be immediately apparent—like being able to serve your country without being in the military or lead a technical team without having a technical background.
I would be remiss if I didn’t add that I’m an African-American woman in a field that is still is very male-dominated. We have more women now, but not as many. Trying to break through these barriers of being a supervisor and manager where most of the individuals I managed and led were men and having the ability to have these conversations as a Black woman was also very helpful. I could break through some of the stereotypes I faced, not only as an American but also as an African-American woman. In going to Russia and other places in the world, I was not who they were used to seeing leading delegations, leading the negotiations, or leading the team. I went to very remote areas, and I was a surprise from the very beginning.
That’s a nuance that I cannot glaze over, because it continues to be my reality. Nevertheless, I’m overcoming gender and racial barriers by focusing on EM’s mission. I am grateful for the education, work overseas, and Great Books experiences that landed me an enriching career at EM. I speak to that wholeheartedly, because people bring their whole selves to work, and understanding that is very important. When I walk into a room, there’s nothing about myself that I could, should, or want to hide.