Career & Life Vision Conversation with Asha Rangappa '96

"Success is being authentically who you are."

Asha Rangappa is the Associate Dean of Admissions at Yale Law School. She graduated from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University in 1996, and from Yale Law School in 2000. In between, she was a Fulbright Scholar in Bogota, Colombia, where she studied Colombian constitutional reform and its impact on U.S. drug policy in the region. During her time at Yale Law School, Asha served as a Coker Fellow for Constitutional Law, participated in the Yale-Chile Linkage Program, and founded Yale Law School's first theater troupe, the Court Jesters. Following law school Asha served as a law clerk for the Honorable Juan R. Torruella, U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She then joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a Special Agent, specializing in counterintelligence investigations in New York City from 2002 until 2005. Asha joined Yale Law School as the Assistant Dean of Admissions in December 2005, becoming Associate Dean in 2007. Asha teaches National Security Law and related courses at Wesleyan University, the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University, and the Henry C. Lee School of Criminal Justice at the University of New Haven.

Read and watch to learn about the challenge that almost ended Asha's career in the FBI, commonalities between working as a special agent and as an admissions officer, and the biggest misconception about the law school admissions process.

1. Tell me about your path since graduation.
I graduated in 1996. I spent a year in Bogota, Colombia. Then I came here to Yale Law School for law school and got a law degree in 2000. After I graduated from law school, I went to Puerto Rico and clerked for a Judge. After my clerkship I joined the FBI and was a special agent in New York City doing counterintelligence investigations. This was immediately after 9/11. I did that for three years and then I came back to Yale Law School to become the Dean of Admissions, which is the position that I have now.

2. Why did you choose to go to law school?
I was one of the people that I try to now counsel, in the sense that I always knew I wanted to go to law school and I didn’t think much beyond it. I wanted to be a prosecutor. At least I will say for myself that I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, and that was a good reason to want to go to law school.

I didn’t really question that. I did want to take time after college though, and I wanted to go abroad. I applied for fellowships. I went to Bogota, Colombia. This was the late nineties. It was a little bit of a crazy time. Pablo Escobar had been killed in 1992. A year abroad in between was really one of the best things that I did. It really went outside my comfort zone. It may have set the stage for choices I made later. It was great for me to know that I could do it.

3. Why did you decide to join the FBI?

While I was in law school, I realized that the path to becoming a prosecutor was typically going to work for a law firm for a few years. I did that for one summer. It really wasn't going to be what I wanted to do. Law firms pay a lot of money and they do interesting work, but it just wasn't where my heart was. So I started thinking about alternative ways that I could become a federal prosecutor. It occurred to me that I could be an FBI agent. I learned that under Hoover special agents were always lawyers or accountants. I hadn’t known that. That was another thing that made it appealing to me, that it was a theoretically valid thing to do after law school, the “order” part of the “law and order.” I'd kick down doors for a few years and then I would become a prosecutor and I would have had the experience and insight from being an agent on the other side.

4. So what was it like actually applying?
I applied to the FBI when I was in law school. At the time they are on a hiring freeze, so I went on with my life. I did my clerkship in Puerto Rico, which was amazing, and then 9/11 happened right at the end of my clerkship. It was September 2001. My clerkship ended in October, and I basically got a call from the FBI at that point because my application was just in the queue. They said, “We want to fast-track you,” because I had language skills. I spoke Spanish fluently. I also speak an Indian language. They were interested in that, though they didn't know exactly what to do with that exactly at that moment. So I ended up in the FBI. Post 9/11 they really weren't so interested in having people kick down doors. They wanted people to do counterintelligence and counterterrorism investigations. I ended up doing counter-intelligence, which is catching spies. I can't reveal too much details, it’s classified, but it was a really fun job.

5. What was it like to get that call from the FBI?
It was really exciting. At the point where I got the call, I had gone through a couple of phases. I had gone for this initial weird battery of psychological tests. They ask you things like, “Do you leave your desk messy at the end of the day?” It was very strange. I got past that, so I guess I wasn't crazy, and then they gave me another phase of tests, which was also very strange and involved a lot of hard math. I got past that, so the point at which they called me it wasn't quite yet, “You're in,” it was, “We’re going to actually start moving on your application.” So I was excited, but there was still quite a long way to go. An in-person interview phase, background check, and that was very intense because they do a full, thorough background check because you get a top secret clearance. That took several months. I had to track down basically everyone everywhere I'd ever lived and somebody who knew me there. After that was done, which took several months, I had to go and do a drug test, a polygraph, and a physical fitness test. Probably from the time that they start moving on the application to the time that I actually got the phone call that I was to report to Quantico was about nine or ten months. But that's fast for the FBI.

6. Tell me about the work you did.
I can’t talk about specific cases, but I can talk a little bit about what I did. You know counterintelligence work is different than most people think of when they think of the FBI. FBI shows are completely inaccurate. I was doing a lot of surveillance. Tracking people, behavioral analysis, trying to flip people to work for the US government versus their government. We were targeting diplomats, people from other countries who are here spying for their country. We want to stop them from doing that and ultimately get them to give us information. It's a bit like what the CIA does abroad, but the FBI has jurisdiction here in the United States.

7. Who do you think would enjoy working with the FBI?
The FBI draws from people with a wide variety of backgrounds, because they do all kinds of different work. For that specific kind of work it's a person who likes cerebral work, is methodical, likes the “spy vs. spy” chess game. The FBI generally has a number of different kinds of work that they do and that's just one of them. Counterterrorism investigation is not investigating a crime that's already happened, but you're trying to infiltrate and understand activity that might be in progress. Another really big area in the FBI now is cyber investigations. That’s just the huge new intrusions and hackings and all of that stuff. My class at Quantico had a kindergarten teacher, a rocket scientist, a chemist, several people from the military, and several lawyers. They really do draw from a wide variety of backgrounds because they're using a lot of different skills, depending on the kinds of investigations that they're doing.

8. Tell me about a time you failed.

Failure has been my friend. I think failure is really important, because it helps you see what you're capable of. I don't think that it shows you your limitations; I think it shows you what you're actually capable of. I'll give one example. I got the call to report to Quantico. A week before, I was riding in the car with a friend, my boyfriend at the time, who made this quick left turn in front of an oncoming car. The oncoming car hit my passenger door. The airbag went off and I got rushed to the hospital. I had contused ribs. It was awful. I couldn't move.

It put a kink in the plan in terms of my physical abilities. I was really devastated. I was able to get them to postpone my start date for another month. I didn't want to push it any more than that, because then I could just lose my slot. That was going to be my chance. I took five weeks. I was trying to run. I would just cry everyday because it was just so painful, and I had been in such good shape, and I’d been working so hard. Anyway, I showed up to Quantico. Second day you're there they give you a PT test. Running, push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups. I failed colossally. You can get negative points. If you get in the negatives total cumulatively, they’ll actually wash you out. Somehow I managed to do enough to cancel out my negative scores from not being able to do some stuff at all, that I ended up with a zero. So they let me stay there, but I was basically on probation for the first six weeks. At the FBI, they could care less that I was in a car accident. They did not want to hear my excuses. I remember that first week I was so sad. I thought I’d never be able to do it. It was a place that valued just a different set of criteria than I had been used to performing for. Also they just didn't want to hear about any mitigating factors. No safe spaces at Quantico, I can tell you that. I had this moment where I was like, “I just should quit,” and then I was like, “I’m not gonna quit.” You know it's like Project Runway, you gotta make it work. Tim Gunn, “Make it work!”  

So I woke up at four in the morning every single day to wrap my ribs. I could hear the Rocky music playing in the background. I just trained, I trained, I trained. I found people who could help me. This is actually how I met my husband, because he was an Air Force Academy grad who lived down the hall. I couldn't do push-ups to save my life. He started assisting me with pushups. Every day during class breaks he would sit there and put a towel around my waist and I would practice my pushups. I had to do 20 of them to get one point or something. I needed a 15-point minimum to stay.

I went from zero to 20 points in the span of six weeks. Everyone was shocked, because they totally thought that I was going to fail out. It was just such a pivotal moment for me. I was either going to forge forward or I was going to quit, and I just forged forward. No one believes in you and you just have to marshal the resources that you have in yourself. You find the people around you that are going to help you and you make it work.

Two months ago, I’m now 41, I ran a Spartan Race. I now know what I'm capable of, and physical challenges don't daunt me in the same way. I’ll jump through fire, I don't care. That came out of failure. If I hadn’t been in the car accident and I somehow squeaked by on the first day, I probably wouldn't have risen to the occasion as much as I ended up doing. And now I'm really good at pushups. And pull-ups actually.

I don't think you can see a successful person in the world that didn't fail very spectacularly at some point.

9. When and why did you leave the FBI?
About three years in, I found out that there was this Associate Dean position open here. It was my alma mater for law school. I was married. I needed a change of pace in order to start having a family. So this became the next move, and now here I am.

10. What does your job as Dean of Admissions entail?
As the dean of admissions and financial aid my work is kind of cyclical. Between November and March I'm reading applications. I read about 3,000 applications a year. I read them cover to cover, so I read a lot of essays. I’ve now been doing this for 10 years so I have probably read close to 30,000 applications at this point. It’s a lot of reading. A lot of patience and self-pacing. There's a tediousness to it also, but you have to find ways to keep it fresh and make sure you're reading each application anew. That is what each person deserves. As we give the offers we do our admit days, in-person recruiting, talking to people. That's the part that I love a lot. In the summer it gets a little bit slower. I am doing transfer applications and doing some recruiting events, but that's kind of the down time. Then in the fall we start with the recruiting. We go to visit schools including Princeton. I come and talk about Yale Law School. Why people should apply, why people shouldn't apply, and do my little song and dance. There's a certain predictability to it, but it is also changing at predictable intervals. You're not doing the same job all through the year. Different higher education administrative jobs are different. Typically, I think the student services-centered ones like Admissions, Financial Aid, and Student Affairs tend to follow a cycle.

11. Are there any common threads between your work in the FBI and your work in admissions?
You’re really trying to create a profile of a person. In the FBI you're doing it based on certain kinds of data. You might be watching them, you might interview them, you may have a taped conversation they’ve been talking on. You have a lot of different kinds of data. In some ways I think that admissions is a little bit harder, because you only have this written file. You can actually learn a lot, because you have people who are giving references, and so you're creating basically a profile of a person. I think there are a lot of skills that transfer over. What makes this person tick is really ultimately the question in both fields.

12. What makes you tick?

That’s interesting because I actually did read my own application. That was such a bad idea. It was weirdly existential. Would I admit myself? I’m not sure. I was definitely motivated, and I still am motivated, by a sense of mission and purpose. Going back to why the law firm wasn't really resonating with me. It just didn't click with how I wanted to feel that I was having a purpose. I really like the idea of having a direct impact on people and helping them move forward in some way. In the FBI it was a little bit more abstract in that I was helping people by catching bad guys. But it was still a very direct impact on the overall welfare, public interest if you will. My work now is more individual-directed. I’ve never been particularly motivated by money. Definitely coming out of law school you have a lot of lucrative job opportunities, and those didn't hold the same draw for me as other kinds of work.

13. What does service mean to you?
For me, service means being a part of something that's bigger than me. That can be applied in a lot of different ways. Obviously, if you're doing government or nonprofit work then it's more obvious, because you're working for some big policy agency, or the Department of Education, or a cause. For me, it's just important in what I do, to know that I am having an impact on something that's bigger than myself. I don't mean to say that careers where you are making a lot of money are at odds with that, but I think it's easier to lose focus in those kinds of careers.  Then the bottom line can take over, so it's harder to keep that vision in your sphere.

14. Tell me about  one of your mentors.
I think of it more as a board of directors. I don't think there's any one person. The phrase that has always stuck with me is that a mentor, or somebody on your board of directors, is “Anyone whose hindsight can become your foresight.” When you think of it that way, there are just so many people around you in various areas of your life that can be mentors. I think that really frees you up from feeling like you need to find this one person who's “my mentor” who, like your spouse, will be everything to you. Nobody can fill that role for everything. But I think you already have, or you will, develop a lot of relationships where that will be true. And where you also have the hindsight that can be somebody else's foresight. When you think of it that way there are so many mentors around us for all kinds of things.

15. What do you think is the biggest misconception about admissions offices?

I think the biggest misconceptions people have about admissions is that we're not human. There is this idea that there's no real humanity that enters the process and that there are just some checkboxes or numbers. There are objective factors that we look at, but at the end of the day it is a real person that's trying to connect to this real person on paper, spending a lot of time trying to get it right, because we understand that there is a person behind there. Part of why I started doing a blog, is to try to say, “Hey! There's a person here.” I do have opinions, but I also have a heart, and here's how it looks from my end. I want to open up the black box a little bit. A little bit more transparency can go a long way. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people who read my blog and they have actually said, “It's made me want to put my hat in the ring, because I actually believe that there is a real-life person on the other end that's going to read what I wrote and not just automatically toss my application in the trash.” I am like, “That’s true!”

16. What kind of person would enjoy Yale Law School?
It really is a school that rewards you for what you put in. Students create a journal, or they create a new student organization. Several years ago some students created the Iraqi refugee assistance project, because they felt like there were a lot of Iraqi refugees in the New Haven community that needed assistance in getting placed and acclimated. Find the things that matter to you and then create things around it. Find the resources. Find the help.

Kind of like what I talked about before, and why I think failure is important is because I think it develops those skills. Becoming self-directed and knowing when to marshal certain kinds of resources. Instead of being always dependent on your environment to tell you what to do and if you're doing it well.

17. Think back to when you first graduated. What would surprise you most about your path?
My graduating self from Princeton would probably be surprised by the fact that I'm not a prosecutor. I think I was so certain of what I was going to do, it didn't occur to me that there would be so many forks in the road. Where I am now is probably not even something I could have imagined. I knew that this job existed, just like I knew the FBI job existed, but they had not been things that I had entertained at that moment. I think my graduating self would be pleasantly surprised by what I'm doing. I'm very happy with what I'm doing now.

18. What makes you so happy with your job?
What I found with my jobs is that I need space to be creative and to express myself in some authentic way. The job I have now gives me a lot of different opportunities to do that. I can do that when I'm talking to people and meeting with students, which is really fun. I had a blog for a while that I gave advice on. I had chances to teach over the last four years. I teach National Security Law and related courses. That’s has also given me a way of expressing my thoughts and opinions. I write op-eds for mainstream media. So I would say expression and having outlets to be my authentic self in some way has been really valuable to me. I would not want to give that up unless it was for something where I could do the same thing.

19. And if time and money not a factor what would you do?
For some reason I am a magnet for my friends to come to for advice about various decisions. I would love to have that be a core component of what I do. I also love being creative and I love theatre. I think I would be performing in some way and I would be coaching or teaching in some way.

20. That’s awesome-it really seems like you get to do that in your role here.
I think that there is a performance aspect to this job, which is cool, which I really do love. There is also a performance aspect to teaching. I’ve also found that I need to keep that part alive in my free time. I do community theater in my free time. I do improv comedy. Pay attention to what you do in your free time, because that's a clue. You want to have elements of that in your job.

21. Expression seems to mean a lot to you. How did you find space for that in government work?
It's harder to find a space for that kind of expression in government work. You're supposed to be impartial. You're a servant for the people. Probably while you're in those jobs it's not the time to write your New York Times op-ed on what you think government policy is about. But those are really valuable areas to gain experiences so that you can have knowledgeable opinions later on. When you graduate from college you may have a lot of opinions, but you also need to get the experience.

So I do think the trade-off, whether it’s military, law-enforcement or government, of really getting some inside experience in what policymaking and what being in action on the ground is about, gives you a much more nuanced view and a rare view that many people don't have.

22. How do you define success?

For me, success is being able to be authentically who you are, whether professionally, in your intimate relationships, with your friends and your family. So I think it's as much an inward journey, I don’t mean to get all spiritual and stuff, but I think it's as much as an inward journey as achieving these outward things. You know a house and kids etc. are wonderful, but the more that you know and understand about what makes you tick, the more you're able to find and appreciate when you have it in your life. To me, that's being successful. Sounds hokey, but... 

23. What advice would you give to your recently graduated self?
I don't know that I would change anything, to be honest. What I see looking back is that although I had a goal, I had flexibility in my thought process so that I could look at what was possible when new opportunities came up. I had a good balance. I think you do need a goal to be working towards, but you want to have your antenna up to be able to entertain possibilities. I did a good job of that.

I kind of listened to what was feeling right and not feeling right. I was on this path and the moment where things started to not sit right was when I went to go work for a couple of law firms over the summer. I did the work and said, “This is just not something that feeds my soul. It’s not what's exciting to me.”

I had the goal of becoming a prosecutor. I knew that working at a law firm was traditionally on the way to that path. That's what you did for a few years before you apply to those jobs. I also knew that it wasn't something I wanted to do. So I tried to find another workaround to get to the same goal without doing something that I knew wasn't what I really wanted to do. That's what gave me the creativity to think, “I wonder if I should try the FBI? That sounds really exciting.” So I think you need that balance.

24. Anything else?
The time to be flexible and take risks is when you're just coming out of college. The costs of that are just so little. I think most people would agree that it's harder to do that later. Sometimes there's just such a fixation on, “If I don't do this now, along some well-worn path...”  You'll be fine. You can still end up in the same place that all those people are if you go do something a little bit different. So experiment a little bit.

25. Any final career and life advice to college grads?

Number one is be flexible. Especially for goal-oriented people.  We tend to think that if we're flexible then we might be floating off some path and we'll never get whatever, but I think being flexible actually opens up more possibilities. Things are less rigid than people sometimes believe.

Take risks. I learned to take risks and take big risks. I feel like when I did that they tended to work out. Maybe not in the way that I expected, but it all unfolded in a way that at some point it made complete sense.

Develop a generosity of spirit. Which again, this is going into hokey land, I feel like Asha 1.0 and maybe 2.0  was incredibly opinionated. Things were much more black and white. I now feel like I'm able to resonate with where people are coming from, even if I don't agree with them. It makes my life better, it makes my relationships better, it helps me get along with people better at work, because you're not in this rigid bubble of how things should be or how people should think or how the world should be. I would say those are the big things. Be flexible, take risks, have generosity of spirit for where other people are coming from, and just be open to whatever is unfolding.

This interview was conducted and condensed by Lisa Einstein '13