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From HBCU to VA: An interview with Bowie State University alumna Crystal Drakeford

From HBCU to VA: An interview with Bowie State University alumna Crystal Drakeford
Posted By: Reginald Culpepper on September 27, 2022

For Crystal Drakeford, the journey from Bowie State University to a career at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) held some twists and turns, but resulted in an enjoyable, rewarding career.

The HBCU experience

Like many students, Drakeford first set out on her collegiate journey with one career in mind, but ultimately ended up going in a different direction.
What was never in question was her interest in attending an Historically Black College and University (HBCU). Drakeford’s experience with her high school educators who had attended HBCUs inspired her choice and confirmed that she wanted the atmosphere offered on an HBCU campus.

“Bowie State University was close to home and offered a more intimate environment, with smaller classrooms and close connections with instructors,” said Drakeford. “All of that sealed the deal.”

At Bowie, she joined a sorority, Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority Inc., which supported the dynamic and diverse connections she was building among her fellow students. She remains active in her sorority to this day, participating in community service projects and embracing the support offered by that community.
“I made lifelong friends at Bowie, both personal and professional,” she shared. “I have friends who work in similar careers, and we’re able to share thoughts and ideas. It makes for a really unique and enriching experience.”

The path to VA

Throughout VA’s history, graduates of HBCUs have made important contributions to the care and support of Veterans. VA maintains partnerships with many HBCUs, including Howard University, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, Bluefield State University, and Drakeford’s alma matter, Bowie.

Drakeford’s pursuit of a federal position was a diligent one, and though it took time to navigate the hiring process, she knew that the effort would be worth the reward.

“I was filling out applications late at night, on weekends,” she recalled, “but I kept trying, kept working at it, because I knew it would pay off eventually.”

One of the nation’s top employers for recent graduates, VA offers comprehensive health insurance, competitive pay, paid leave, extensive retirement packages, and other benefits that make it an appealing destination.

“There’s so much federal positions offer,” Drakeford explained. “The stability, the benefits, the work-life balance. Those things made it worth pursuing to me.”

Drakeford’s shot came in 2014 when she secured a position at VA working in the Office of Information Technology as a program analyst. Since coming to VA, she has risen to the role of senior government information specialist. Drakeford direct and develops VA’s Enterprise Privacy Awareness and Outreach Program, which is deployed to over 400,000 network users.

“It’s a position that I really enjoy,” she explained. “There’s a lot of room for me to explore my creativity and style, and we are building a culture that values data privacy protection here at VA. But it is kind of ironic, that I started out in college with a major in health care, and here I am, doing business operations for the nation’s largest integrated health care system.”

A connection to service

For Drakeford, the mission of VA is also a personal one: her father was a Veteran, and he frequently detailed his pride at his daughter’s choice of workplace with his friends at his local Veteran of Foreign Wars (VFW) post. It’s a pride that Drakeford shares.

“This is truly an organization that cares about our nation’s heroes. Why would you want to work anywhere else?”

That pride carries over to her work, where she takes up the challenge of securing the information that VA is entrusted with, whether it comes from Veterans or our employees.

She said that the information people have provided to VA deserves to be not only safeguarded, but respected, and she credits the team of skilled professionals from diverse backgrounds who help her accomplish that task.

Lessons learned

Drakeford’s time at Bowie prepared her to take on the many and varied challenges that come with her current position, as well as the adjustments she made as her career trajectory altered from health care to business to her current position in data privacy.

“I never saw myself in this sector, but at Bowie I learned not to shy away from a challenge, whether it was academically, socially, or professionally,” she said. “I found myself in a new era, in a new field and a new environment, but I’ve always appreciated the assistance and love I received at Bowie. The support I experienced there was enriching and has led me to embrace new challenges.”

Drakeford said she’s also experienced that welcoming and encouraging environment at VA as well. She has found VA leadership to be particularly supportive of her educational growth and her pursuit of her career.

“I welcome that, just like they welcome us to explore new career opportunities,” she said.

“It’s one of the great things about VA, that you can shift your focus, either temporarily on a detail or long term, and they’ll support you every step of the way,” she said.

Work at VA

With a career at VA, you’ll be part of an organization that is committed to serving our diverse Veteran population and supporting inclusion for both staff and patients.


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