Former Pentagon director visits alma mater Cardozo High School to discuss her career

Elsa Alvarado with Cardozo High School teacher Philip Ackerman (Photo by Ethan Marshall)

Former Pentagon director and Cardozo High School alumna Elsa Alvarado paid a special visit to the school Thursday, March 2, spending the day speaking to multiple classes about her career and experiences that led her to work at the Pentagon.

By telling her story, Alvarado hopes to inspire students to not be afraid to pursue their dreams, regardless of what obstacles may be in the way.

“It means a lot to be back,” Alvarado said. “I’ve always had a strong desire to give back to the community, whether it’s talking to students, being a speaker, talking to parents, writing an article about the work I do. When students get to hear perspectives about people who were in their shoes, they get inspired.”

According to Alvarado, she initially planned to become a lawyer when attending Middlebury College in Vermont. However, after getting some desk experience, she decided upon going back to school via a master’s program in China through the Schwarzman Scholars fellowship program.

Having long been passionate about politics, both international and at a national level, Alvarado ended up joining Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign after applying for a variety of positions there. She was responsible for performing background research on events and places Dr. Jill Biden would potentially attend and people she would meet. It was up to Alvarado to ensure that the future first lady avoided scandals by being seen at events or with people with questionable backgrounds.

After Joe Biden was elected president, Alvarado became a senior vetting analyst for the 59th Presidential Inaugural Committee. Once Biden took office, she was brought on to work in the Pentagon as director of strategic communications for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs. She ended up spending almost two years in that role before leaving last November to join the strategic communications firm Bryson Gillette as a director. There, she helps her clients, whether individuals or corporations, better brand themselves and assists with their communications goals and ideas. The firm was founded in 2020 by former President Barack Obama’s former Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton.

During her time working at the Pentagon, Alvarado led a team of three to four analysts in creating memos, talking points and research materials for Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III as he prepared to engage with Congress. She acted as a liaison between the Department of Defense and Congress. She also created an internship program for her office with the goal of bringing in more women and people of color into the defense world. Five or six interns would work with her for six months. Many of these interns have since had their careers blossom thanks to this program.

“The three things I always thought about when I walked into any room: I was the only women, the youngest person and I was the only Latina,” Alvarado said. “Being the minority of the minorities in a building that is filled with so much history and power, I learned how to advocate for myself, how to speak up, how to give an opinion and how to not feel insecure about what I could offer to the team. I gained a lot of confidence and I gained the skill set that I needed to thrive in any career.”

According to Alvarado’s former global studies honors teacher at Cardozo High School, Philip Ackerman, he isn’t surprised to see how successful she has become. He felt she stood out among the class even back then.

“I remember her writing and I remember her as a very serious student,” Ackerman said. “I know she already changed the life of somebody in my class. [Alvarado] showed that student that there’s a future, that she’s not always going to need to be home at 9 at night and she’s going to be able to do something with her life and balance her social life.”

According to Cardozo High School senior Ella Stevens, hearing Alvarado’s story was very inspiring for her. She has similar aspirations in her collegiate career to what Alvarado went through. She was also thoroughly impressed over the fact that Alvarado had the privilege of working at the Pentagon and being the youngest director in the history of the Pentagon.

“I thought it was very inspiring how she went to this school and then such a good school and that she got to study abroad for her graduate year,” Stevens said. “That’s something that I want to do, to go to graduate school eventually. Hearing how she went to China and she was able to learn about the relations between the U.S. and China seems like something that I would be interested in doing.”

Stevens has yet to decide upon what career goals she will have. This is in large part due to her many different interests related to different programs, including law, psychology and politics. She also started the Women’s Empowerment Club at Cardozo High School, where the members meet once a week to discuss various topics, including misogyny and the wage gap. She estimates that around 20 people are part of the club. Stevens also hopes to arrange having Alvarado in as a guest speaker at a future meeting.

While Alvarado has enjoyed her time at the Pentagon and her current work with Bryson Gillette, she hopes to return to New York and run for office in the near future. While she has yet to decide on when this may happen, Alvarado would like to run for New York’s 7th Congressional seat, which is currently occupied by Nydia Velázquez.

“My heart is in New York and it always will be,” Alvarado said. “Because I was a public school kid, there is so much that I can give back to in New York that I do want to run for office here in the near future. I really want to represent immigrant communities, communities of color and public school kids. I think that I can make a big impact because I worked in legislative affairs from the Pentagon’s point of view and the private sector. I could bring all that experience and actually bring change to New York because I’ve had all these experiences that have prepared me for that future next step.”

Alvarado estimates that she would likely look to run within the next 10 to 15 years, though she hasn’t ruled out doing so earlier. First, she wants to continue to hone her skill set in the private sector and, ideally, work in another administration, either at the White House or back at the Pentagon.