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All roads lead to the capital

September 27, 2016 | Alumni

Growing up in Mansfield, Ohio, Debra Dixon ’89 never specifically dreamed about having a career in the inner circle of Washington, D.C., politics. But two of her greatest passions—immigration issues and education policy— led her naturally to the nation’s capital, where she has worked, in various capacities, for more than two decades.

The value of education was instilled in Dixon very early in life. Her father, who moved to the U.S. from Panama, was a Spanish teacher, and her mother taught third grade for years. Both parents went on to teach at the college level, and “education was a very important part of my family’s history,” she said.

After earning her undergraduate degree in political science and Spanish from Wheaton College, in Illinois, Dixon set her sights on law school and enrolled at Ohio State. Initially, she was unsure of which area of law she wanted to specialize in, but during her second year, she spotted an advertisement stating that someone from the Executive Office for Immigration Review (an office of the United States Department of Justice) would be on campus, interviewing students for summer clerkships at Immigration Court.

“In that moment, I thought, ‘Well, I know all about immigration. It’s part of my family’s story,’” she said. “My dad came to the U.S. wanting a better life for himself and his family, and so that appealed to me on a personal level.” She interviewed, got the job, and then, after graduation, worked as a judicial clerk at the Chicago Immigration Court for a year. That experience led to a role as an attorney advisor for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Board of Immigration Appeals, where for nearly seven years she wrote decisions for the board’s endorsement, trained new attorneys, and drafted regulations as part of a task force to implement the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.

Then, an opportunity to work for Congress presented itself, and Dixon accepted a position as counsel to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in 1997, hoping to help “change the course of the direction that immigration laws were taking” at the time, she said. The chairman of the caucus was Rep. Xavier Becerra (CA-34), and in 1998, he hired her as his legislative director and trade counsel, a position she held until 2005, when she was promoted to Rep. Becerra’s chief of staff.

“What I liked best about the work was that there was a lot of variety,” Dixon said. “One day I could be staffing my boss in a meeting at the White House, or with Cabinet secretaries, and then the next day I might have to hunt down the photocopy machine because we are trying to print out enough amendments to take to the committee. There were a lot of fun and exciting parts to it, and there were some parts that were less glamorous but needed to be done just the same.”

She also appreciated that the district the congressman represented in California was especially multicultural and had diverse but critical needs. “I had the opportunity to use my legal mind to help shape policy and represent this district,” she said, “in a way that was ultimately helping and making sure that their voices were heard.”

Dixon worked for Rep. Becerra for nearly 17 years, until she was appointed to serve as chief of staff for the United States Department of Education’s Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development in May 2014.

Dixon’s role with the Department of Education allowed her to put her passion for education to good use, as her office helped shape policy for the Department of Education, and she spent her days “surrounded by people who are trying to do right by the students in this country,” she said. She described her colleagues as “great thinkers and policy wonks” who are all working together to “make sure that educators and students are getting what they need.”

Earlier this year, Dixon left the Department of Education and launched a consulting business, Dixon Avecilla, LLC. The name Avecilla means “little bird” in Spanish, and is a tribute to her Panamanian grandmother.

Looking back, Dixon said that her immigrant roots and the emphasis her parents always placed on education have both deeply influenced her career trajectory.

“It’s harder to see when you are at the front end, wondering where to begin,” she said, “but I would say the most success I have had is from following what feels authentic and real to me, and what I know. Because my story is maybe different from someone else’s, but that’s what gave me a unique perspective as I was applying immigration laws, or as I was thinking about next steps.”

Ironically, Dixon said that some of the best preparation she received for how to make it in Washington, D.C., came from her small town upbringing. In Mansfield, she said, “I learned that relationships are important and hard work is important. Minding your p’s and q’s is important. Every time you leave the house, if you are working for an elected official, you have to be aware of how your actions will reflect back on the member, or on a constituent.”

When recent graduates and interns ask Dixon for career advice, she tells them to ask themselves, “What interests you? What do you get excited about?” Because when it comes to jobs like hers, “you’re going to be working long hours, and what helps you have the ability to put in those long hours,” she explained, “is if you have a passion for what you are doing.”