The Transition From Student Senate to Washington, D.C.

December 8, 2020

Yvonne Gay

A man student sitting on a couch.
Machmud Makhmudov ’15.
Photo credit: Jennifer Manna

When he was growing up, Machmud Makhmudov ’15 noticed how communities from different parts of the world created lives that struggled, grew, and thrived alongside one another. That insight served him well as a policy advisor for the presidential campaign and stands to be an impression in his new role with the incoming Biden Administration.

Makhmudov and his family immigrated to the United States from Uzbekistan and settled in Georgia when he was a child. ‘‘As you can imagine, there weren’t a lot of Uzbek Americans in suburban Georgia,” he says. “I was very attuned to the differences and similarities between people when I was growing up.’’

The scale of a presidential race magnifies the challenges and complexities of working with everyone from farmers in Iowa to small-business people in Wisconsin. The politics of it still comes down to the seemingly simple task of coalition building with a diverse group of people, explains the politics major.

What is your current role with the Biden campaign?

I’ve moved over to the Biden-Harris transition team, which is the bridge between the campaign and the incoming administration. It’s our role to ensure that the government is in a position to deliver on the president-elect’s agenda on day one across every agency and department. I’m also excited to play a role on the transition’s policy and agency review teams. After January 20, I look forward to doing whatever I can to help the president-elect deliver on his promises to the American people.

Were you always interested in a career in politics?

Originally, I thought I wanted to be a judge, but I’m not sure I have the patience or temperament to pursue a life on the bench. Next, I wanted to be a writer, since words have always been the best way for me to understand others and bring to life those experiences and emotions that we often keep private but are in fact shared. I’ve always felt very different from others because of my background. Feeling like I can see and am seen by other people almost feels like being in on an inside secret. Midway through high school, I found politics to be a space to more intimately explore those human connections and tie them to processes and outcomes that make a real impact on people’s lives. I’m obsessed with the idea that where we come from shouldn’t define where we can go and have found politics and policy to be an effective space to make that a reality. 

Were you involved in any student organizations at Oberlin?

Yes. The most impactful for me were the Student Senate and the varsity baseball team. In senate, I had the chance to lead an incredibly politically diverse group of students and learn a lot about advocacy and coalition-building. Being a part of both groups forced me to organize my time and get more out of everything I did in the classroom. I was also involved with the Bonner Center and served as a teaching assistant for courses in the politics and environmental studies departments. 

Who were your mentors at Oberlin, and how did they influence you?

[Emeritus] Professor Paul Dawson as well as Professor [of Politics] Michael Parkin and [Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies] Swapna Pathak always had an open door to talk not just about coursework, but the work that I was doing on the Student Senate and more broadly on campus. I also learned a lot from then-President Marvin Krislov and deans Eric Estes and Kathryn Stuart about how to lead in incredibly difficult circumstances. Nick Petzak from the Fellowships and Awards Office was and remains a good personal friend. 

Did you perform any internships?

My freshman year, I spent winter term with the office of then-Congressman John Lewis. That summer, I was also back in Atlanta doing public policy research at the Georgia Tech Research Institute. For my sophomore winter term, I interned with the Environmental Defense Fund. That summer, I participated in the politics department’s Cole Scholars program, which funded me to intern on a U.S. Senate campaign in Georgia and take a couple of seminar courses on political campaigns. My junior winter term was spent in Atlanta’s Office of Sustainability, where I helped with the city’s work on cutting building emissions. That summer, I interned at the White House, working on the Obama Administration’s Clean Energy Plan. Oberlin supported and funded me through all of these experiences and I will always be extremely grateful. 

You were a very accomplished student, winning a Harry S. Truman Scholarship in 2014 and a Rhodes Scholarship in your senior year. How did these accomplishments help shape your career path?

I learned a lot about America’s place in the world and how we’re perceived by the international community, which gave me a perspective on my current work that would have been missing entirely otherwise. 

What are your future career goals? 

I anticipate working in the federal government for a few years to help us deliver on our campaign promises. I hope to stay involved in politics and advocacy but am considering a number of directions that look a little different from presidential politics. I would love to find a way to formally incorporate writing into my life. Through the campaign, I also gained a lot of insight into the private sector in meeting public goals and would be interested in working on clean energy development. I also want to play a role in getting more diverse, young people into elected office, particularly from the Asian American community. One thing I’ve learned so far is that things rarely go the way you plan, so I’m keeping an open mind. 

What are your fond Oberlin memories? 

I used to drive up to Lake Erie in the winter and walk along the incredibly beautiful frozen beach. I also spent a lot of time at the Feve with friends and maintained a streak of going to the Mandarin nearly every Sunday afternoon with my baseball teammates. Over time it’s mostly been the friendships that I made at Oberlin that have stuck with me the most. 

Any advice for students?

Oberlin has an incredible array of resources available to its students, from incredibly kind and knowledgeable professors to funding from various offices to help students have professional experiences. My advice is to try and take advantage of as much as possible! I miss having those resources available to me and am glad that I kept a busy schedule to be involved in as much as I could. Once you graduate, the luxury of free time to read, write, think, and grow becomes very valuable, so don’t be afraid to lose an hour of sleep and go to that lecture or concert or pursue that research project that you’ve always had in mind. For people that want to go into politics in particular, take advantage of winter term and your summers to intern at a variety of places to see where you might have a real interest in going afterward. 


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