A Visit with Sarah Yi
Director, External Affairs
CTIA – The Wireless Association
You went to the Naval War College. Should we salute, or run for cover?
Neither, but it was a great education. My undergraduate degree is from Arizona State University, in Political Science. It didn’t require a lot of math, which was a bonus. When I moved to Washington, I got a master’s at the Naval War College, which is mainly an institution where active duty military can continue their education and advance through the ranks. But it’s great that Capitol Hill staff can attend as well. I got my advanced degree in National Security and Strategic Studies. We studied how America fought its wars, for example, and how it made strategic decisions in war.
You worked on Capitol Hill while pursuing your master’s?
I worked for Senator John McCain for five years, first as a staff assistant and then in higher positions. What people don’t always know about Senator McCain is that he has a terrific sense of humor. He’s friendly and congenial and as genuine a person as you will find. If you’ve been around Capitol Hill for very long, you see many new members come in, and they still have that genuine quality about them — however, after re-election, this characteristic too often disappears. Seeking office often requires hubris. That sort of goes with the territory and that also makes it difficult to keep perspective and maintain your “realness.” Senator McCain is sincere, and you simply can’t match his character.
For CTIA, which represents the U.S. wireless industry, you have to work with a lot of different groups — ones that disagree with each other intensely. How do you manage that?
Our team does work with some diverse groups, communicating CTIA’s message to the right of center, the center, and the left of center. I will say, Washington isn’t like the rest of the country. The sense of community often shifts, which you don’t find in most other places in America. Although conversation is getting more segmented — outside of Washington, in general, people can hold different political opinions, but they are still neighbors.
People who come to Washington tend to be ambitious, driven people. There is a high percentage of people with advanced degrees. Most of the people who are your friends are people you work with and who agree politically. There is also a lot of turnover in Washington. People might come here and decide it isn’t for them and move back home or to someplace else. But the ones who stay and spend their careers here in their early years can be pretty fixed in their beliefs. We all have to learn to be flexible, which many do as they advance further in their careers. I’ve done a lot of grassroots work, especially for CTIA, and we focus on communicating positions in ways that make sense to very different audiences with different beliefs. What I love about grassroots work is the ability to harness the ongoing conversation to bring together all types of people into one community. Whether working with groups or working with individuals, in either case, it’s as important to know the person or organization you’re speaking with, as it is to understand your own organization’s positions.
On a personal note, Yi is a Korean name, right?
Yes, and when people who have only heard my name actually meet me, they’re surprised. My maiden name is Hitchcock, which is as Anglo as you can get. I married a Korean-born American (@SangYi) who is now Councilman-Elect in the City of Fairfax. I mentioned how difficult it can be to maintain your perspective. It’s important to get out and talk to the people you are representing. Running for office can be a strange experience, especially for a spouse. It’s about communicating with groups and individuals and to respect and engage the community. By the way, he tells me he really learned to understand English watching “The Andy Griffith Show” as a child. He picked up a lot of American expressions and colloquialisms that even I don’t know.
No. Thankfully, he learned to speak English listening to Sheriff Andy, not Gomer.