“My mass communication background taught me how to be concise and how to break down complicated concepts into simpler ones” – Suzie Ahn ’97

Published by Juan Vega Rios on

Susan “Suzie” Ahn is a Lead Program Specialist (Team Lead) of the National School Lunch and
Summer Food Service Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition
Service. She has been based at the agency’s Western Regional Office in San Francisco since 2014. She is a member of the Emerson College class of 1997 and earned a Bachelor of Science
in mass communication – film, summa cum laude.

During your time at Emerson College, what helped develop your skills to become prepared once you graduated?

Because my first job after graduation was as a sportswriter and copy editor at a small newspaper, I could say it was the countless hours I spent at radio station WERS, writing news and sports scripts, conducting interviews, and working as a team that helped prepare me for life after Emerson. But looking back, it was Emerson’s emphasis on hands-on experience that has helped me the most throughout my life and careers. My experience with the extracurricular group Films From the Margin and WERS are good examples. With Films From the Margin, a couple of my fellow film students and I were responsible for inviting independent filmmakers to screen their films on campus. Although we had a terrific faculty advisor in Bridget Murnane, she also trusted us enough to let us manage most, if not all, of the event planning. With WERS, I not only got to learn how to write news scripts, edit packages, and produce shows, but I also learned how to become a better leader, thanks to a management class I took with station director and faculty member Fran Berger. These hands-on experiences and the opportunities to make decisions and learn from those decisions gave me the confidence to tackle whatever awaited me post-graduation. In fact, it was the L.A. program that sold me on going to Emerson in the first place. I was enthralled by the prospect of learning filmmaking in Hollywood while still being a student. I didn’t end up doing the semester in L.A., but the idea of it was enough to get me to Emerson.

How do you see the fields of Mass Communication and Public Administration intersecting, and how has your background in both fields informed your work?

Public administration, especially when it comes to the administration of social services such as the nutrition assistance programs I work with at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), is about making sure the right services reach the right people. But how do we do that? How do we inform people in all 50 states that there are programs that could benefit them? How do we help states obtain funding for such programs? Once people know about the programs, how do we help them gain access?

When your target audience is wide and diverse, mass communication becomes one of your most important tools for sharing your message. A big part of my job is to communicate policies and regulations to state-level partners to help them stay in compliance. What’s the best way to do that? A webinar? A conference call? A memo? Because government language can be convoluted, it’s important to be clear. We don’t want a state agency or a school to misinterpret a rule or regulation and wind up out of compliance. My mass communication background taught me how to be concise and how to break down complicated concepts into simpler ones; it also taught me how to tailor a message for an audience or medium. Some information is best shared visually, while some might be best shared verbally or in writing. If I communicate clearly with our state partners, they can communicate clearly with their schools, and there is less room for error. If all goes well, the correct children get the correct level of benefits, schools receive funding, and everyone remains in compliance, all of which is important when you are trying to be a good steward of taxpayer dollars.

Although connecting people with our programs is the primary way in which our agency uses mass communications, one other way is educating Americans about the work we do at FNS. We’re not just the agency that administers SNAP (formerly food stamps). Now you know we also oversee the school breakfast and school lunch programs, and several other initiatives such as Farm to School. Our programs reach millions of Americans daily. (But, no, we do not decide what foods are served to children.) When I started at FNS in 2014, about 31 million children participated in the National School Lunch Program. Even so, we know we’re still not reaching everyone who is eligible for our services. Could you imagine where we’d be if we didn’t have the help of mass communication?

At the beginning of your career, you were in the sports industry, but now you are in a governmental organization. How was that transition of fields and stakeholders?

Going from sports journalism to the federal government was a drastic move, one that was partly buffered by another radical decision: quitting my job to join the Peace Corps. I had been in sports journalism for a long time, and although I enjoyed it, I was starting to question if the work I was doing was making any kind of difference. I was happy to edit stories, design pages, and clean up box scores, but did anyone really care that I was doing any of that? So, when newspapers started going out of business and layoffs became commonplace, I decided it was finally time to apply to the Peace Corps. I quit my job and spent the next three-plus years in Benin, West Africa. It was during my service that I developed a passion for food security and for public service in general. As a business and technology volunteer, my projects ranged from teaching web design using HTML, to planting a garden in an orphanage, to raising funds for a generator, to organizing a training on drip irrigation. The experience had its successes and its challenges but taught me a lot about adapting to the unexpected, navigating cultural and lingual differences, and understanding that “time” means different things to different people – all of which continue to serve me well to this day.

My Peace Corps experience motivated me to pursue this type of public service-oriented work upon my return to the U.S. Fortunately, there was a position open at the FNS Western Regional Office in San Francisco, working with the child nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program. I would be working closely with state agencies to ensure proper administration of these programs for low-income households in the western states and U.S. territories. It sounded perfect. Although I am farther removed from the direct beneficiaries of our programs than I was in the Peace Corps, I wake up every morning knowing that I am helping someone get what might be their only meals of the day, which is a lot different than when I was in sports journalism and would usually hear from readers only when I made a mistake.

As someone with experience in policy development and implementation, what advice would you give to Emerson students who are looking to influence policy decisions?

My advice would be to get input from every major stakeholder before making any recommendations. Creating a policy based only on a high-level concept will be challenging to operationalize if you haven’t done your homework on each level of implementation. Solicit input from each level of stakeholder who will be involved. It’s easier to adjust a policy that addresses hurdles before implementation than it is to address those hurdles after the fact. You also likely will get more buy-in if stakeholders feel as though they have been heard and included in the decision-making process.

What do you hope to achieve in the future in your career? Any goals you want to share?

In my office, we often joke that we want to end hunger in America, but that would also mean we’d be out of work. I think most of us would be fine with that, however. There are opportunities to move around and up within the agency, but I’m quite happy where I am for now. I have a terrific team, and our programs have so many parts that it’s impossible to master any of them, so you’re constantly kept on your toes. No two days are the same. My goals would be more for the agency than for myself. I would like for the American public to be more aware of FNS programs and to have an easier time being connected to the agency’s services if they need them. And for Americans, in general, to understand that food insecurity is still a major issue in this country. Over the years, I have seen technology play a bigger role in our programs, so I’m curious and excited to see if we can leverage that to help us increase awareness and access going forward.