May1420143:32 pm

Close Up Encounters

On a recent flight from Washington, DC, to Minneapolis, I enjoyed one of those now rare occasions—they used to happen quite often—when I had an interesting conversation with my seat partner. In this time of headphones, ear buds, and other cocoon-creating tech devices, it was fun to exchange ideas once again with a random stranger.

Being co-author of a book on careers, I am keenly interested in ways people make a living, how they view their jobs, and the extent to which they deliberate about their careers.

The conversation began the way so many in Washington, DC, start. I asked, “What do you do?” My seat partner replied: “I work for an organization that brings high school students to Washington, DC, for a week’s immersion in government.” “The Close Up Foundation?” I guessed. “Yes,” he replied. I then learned a great deal more about this remarkable nonprofit organization founded in 1971. When I worked as a program officer at the Institute of International Education (IIE) early in my career, I often scheduled appointments with Close Up staff for participants in the (then USIA sponsored) International Visitor Program. It was the ideal meeting for foreign leaders interested in how young Americans learn to participate in a democracy. I even remember thinking at the time it would be rewarding to work for Close Up.

My seatmate was Jon Gerst who started at Close Up as a program instructor in 2010, advanced to program leader, and now serves as an Outreach Representative as of last August. Jon travels around the country—and sometimes to U.S. territories, such as Guam, as well as other countries—meeting with teachers and principals to help recruit the 16,000 students who participate in Close Up programs each year. Most programs (one teacher per ten students) begin on Sunday and end on the following Friday evening. Activities range from a day on Capitol Hill to Embassy visits.

“Inform, Inspire, Empower” is the Close Up mantra. Learn more at

When I asked Jon what he liked best about his job, Jon noted he totally embraced the mission. “I love that students from around the country learn to tackle weighty issues with in-person civil conversations.” He works with teachers who become community activists, not just for one week, but all year long. We agreed that it is vitally important for young people to get engaged in the political process.

“What characteristics do you need to work for Close Up?” I asked. Jon answered: “The ability to improvise and be quick on your feet, a willingness to work long and hard, and open-mindedness. You must not write anyone off too quickly. This is surely a set of traits any employer would appreciate.”

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