How I Went From Waiting Tables To Working in Politics
At the Embassy of Switzerland, Nelson wears many hats, using his degree in Government & Politics as well as his thorough understanding of protocol to advise and support the Swiss Ambassador.
“As the Embassy’s protocol officer,” says Nelson “I advise the Ambassador and Embassy staff on U.S. and international protocol, including order of precedence, proper titles and forms of address, gift-giving customs, and other behavioral elements of diplomacy.”
“Getting these details right helps create the ideal professional environment in which my boss and his staff can do what they’re here to do: promote Swiss-U.S. relations.
Each year, Nelson coordinates about 250 official functions for over 3,000 guests, including government officials, diplomats, military leaders, corporate executives, and other dignitaries.
Even more astounding than the fact that David Nelson secured his dream job so young, is the way he got it. For him, it was all about networking and being in the right place at the right time.
Waiting Tables Landed Me My Dream Job
“For a few summers during college, I was waiting tables at Braddock’s Tavern–a historic restaurant on Main Street in my hometown [of Medford, NJ]. Late one evening, as the last guests were leaving, I overheard a woman introduce herself to another patron as the Ambassador to the United States from the Principality of Liechtenstein. I thought, ‘An ambassador? In Medford? At this hour?!’”
Nelson introduced himself to the Ambassador and they made conversation about her background and his interest in politics. When Nelson got back to school, he set up an informational interview with her. At that meeting, she showed him a book on protocol.
“Over the years, I kept in touch with the Ambassador and her assistant. That same assistant notified me in 2015 that her counterpart at the Embassy of Switzerland was leaving. And that I might consider applying for the position. I did. And here I am.”
Make The Cold Call
“Don’t be afraid of the cold call. They occur far less often nowadays. When someone does eventually pick up the phone and gives you 30 seconds to introduce yourself and explain why they fascinate you, seize the opportunity to make an impression.”
Nelson landed his first college internship relating to protocol at the Department of Homeland Security by simply picking up the phone and asking to come in for an informational interview.
“It’s awkward, I know. The worst they can say is, ‘thanks, but no thanks.’ Anything other than that is a foot in the door and a name they’ll remember.”
Pay it Forward
“I’ve been blessed with some truly outstanding professional role models. One was the person who invited me to an annual conference for protocol officers.
“At the time, I was just starting to learn what protocol was and how it might manifest into a career. I was hesitant at first—we had never met; heck, I had never flown cross-country alone before. But the conference was life-changing. Eight years later, I now serve as vice president of the very same international association of protocol officers that hosts that conference.
“There are many others, like my boss at the Department of Homeland Security who taught me how to negotiate. Or my college professor who showed me how to write an effective resume. Or my grandmother who schooled me on proper behavior at the symphony. Few of us realize how many hands go into crafting the person and the professional we are today.
“It’s a cliché, but a big part of that is this idea of paying it forward. Because someone did something for me, I ought to do something for someone else. Paying it forward. That is reciprocity. That’s social capital.”
Photography by Joy Asico