Alumni Spotlight: Chelsea Montes de Oca
By Amy Sage, Second Year Graduate Student in the M.A. International & Intercultural Communication
Chelsea Montes de Oca (MA '16) is mission driven. Her path to where she is now, a Communications and Digital Media Officer for the United Nations Foundation, was winding. With enough determination and focused effort, she was able to create the career she wanted for herself.
Montes de Oca graduated from the University of Central Florida with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and sociology, which she admits are not the most typical undergraduate degrees she sees in international work. However, she says the focus is the same. “All [of my studies] had this underlying theme of wanting to help people and pursuing justice. I didn’t necessarily know how I wanted to pursue the path of making the world a better place, so I explored that along the way.” She took her post graduate skills and applied them to helping underprivileged communities through City Year, a program affiliated with AmeriCorps.
It was during her two years working with underperforming schools in Denver that she realized that she wanted to focus on ethical storytelling. So she started looking for graduate programs that would help her learn more about strategic communication. That is when she found the International and Intercultural Communication program at DU. “The IIC program was a really great way for me to pivot my career path and move towards communication for social good and strategic communication and focus more in the international development space.”
Reflecting on her time at DU, Montes de Oca said: “What I loved about the IIC program was its intimate feel. The professors all have their own passions. You feel like you are part of a community of people.” Her first experience at DU was in Margie Thompson’s travel class at the United States/Mexico border in Tucson, Arizona, studying immigration and border cultures. She was enamored with the hands-on experience. Nadia Kaneva’s Brands and Identities class also sticks out in her memory as “shifting the way I think about the world. It blew my mind; I still think about that class all the time.”
Transitioning into a career post-graduation was tougher than she had imagined. She worked part time for several organizations whose mission statements matched her values. One was a PR firm, where she helped run the social media account for an advocacy campaign during the 2016 election year. The other was a socially conscious jewelry company that connected customers with local artisans. “I hodge-podged a lot of things together to make money until I finally got a full-time job at a community health center in Denver.”
She has worked with health initiatives ever since. “[It was] a good experience and insight into providing affordable health care to people that need it. I had a great look into the world of community health and health equity.” Montes de Oca decided to use this experience to pursue a long-standing dream of hers: to live and work abroad. She was hired to serve as a Global Health Corps fellow in Zambia with an organization called PATH. She was tasked with telling the story of malaria elimination in Zambia by capturing the experiences of local healthcare workers and scientists. She also produced communication materials on social behavior change to influence locals to engage in malaria prevention activities such as sleeping under a net and having their homes sprayed.
Chelsea Montes de Oca recently secured a job with the UN Foundation working with a malaria prevention campaign “Nothing but Net.” She describes herself as a “jack of all trades: anything comms, I do it.” That includes social media, media relations, quad posts, copy for fundraising emails and advocacy-related pushes. She is situated in Washington, D.C. and loves her current position. She described her favorite part as “working with incredible people with diverse voices and backgrounds.”
Her work is not without its challenges, especially as public health is a difficult field to be involved in during a global pandemic. “Everything is so focused on COVID-19. It’s hard to make the case for malaria when there’s something so immediate in people’s minds that we need to solve.” But she tries to relate her ethical storytelling to the current situation. “Viruses don’t respect borders and they also don’t respect other viruses. I try to focus on how COVID-19 is affecting malaria.”
The challenges only offer more opportunity to learn and grow. When asked if she ever experiences any other challenges in the workplace, such as being a woman, she stated that she has been fortunate to have a lot of women mentors and supervisors and she thinks that is pretty common in the non-profit world. However, she did mention: “Any time I’ve felt a challenge being a woman in a workplace, I’ve felt more empowered to start creating a world that I want to see. It compels and motivates me to push forward.”
This persistent attitude has served her well. Montes de Oca admitted that she got her first part-time job at the PR firm by sending them an email and asking if she could work for them for free. They agreed, and after a month added her on as a paid employee. She says, “just know that it might take a little bit of time to find your place after graduating, try to take advantage of every opportunity you can because you never know where it is going to lead.”
Whether it is working on the ground with populations in the United States or abroad, or behind the scenes with donors and policy change-makers on the hill, Chelsea Montes de Oca just wants to help make a difference. “As long as you believe in the mission, the work is great.”