Melissa Horton

Melissa Horton '03 Works as a Federal Investigator

What did you study at Simmons and what's your current job title?

Communications. I'm a federal investigator of civilian equal-employment disputes with the U.S. Department of Defense.

What's a typical day like at your job?

Every day is so different! Sometimes I'm on a military installation taking witness testimony or mediating workplace disputes, other days I'm gathering documents and other evidence to compile into an electronic investigative file or writing reports of investigation, summarizing testimony and evidence.

What was the application process like?

As a military veteran, I applied online at USAJobs.gov like other candidates and notated my eligibility for a position under the Veterans Employment Opportunities Act. I was interviewed by phone and brought on board several months later (the wheels of bureaucracy can move at a snail’s pace).

How did you know the organization was a good fit?

A retiring colleague recommended I apply for the position.This job melds all of my talents and skills beautifully. It combines my love of journalism with my passion for civil rights law and knowledge of military culture. As a neutral third party to a dispute, I'm like a journalist gathering research and asking tough questions, but instead of an article, I write a report summarizing the evidence using my knowledge of federal employment laws. The best part is I'm constantly on the move and I telework — which is much more productive than working in an office where things can be hectic and distracting.

Can you talk about the different types of career moves you've made since graduating from Simmons?

After graduating from Simmons a year early during the start of military operations in Iraq, I returned home to Texas and decided to apply to law school. While in law school in Dallas, I was given a rare opportunity to work for the Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court in Austin. It was there that I decided that using my law degree in government service could be a fulfilling career.  

When I told my parents that I was considering applying to the U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps, they were not surprised. Between the two of them were Army, Air Force and Marine Corps legacies, so I guess you could say the military was in my blood. My first duty station was Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert of Southern California, where Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier a month after the Air Force became a separate service in 1947. I concluded my military service at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in 2011 as the Chief of Labor Law and Ethics. Shortly thereafter I transitioned to my current position as a civilian.

What was your experience like in the U.S. Air Force?

The Air Force allowed me to see the many struggles of our military service members firsthand. During my first assignment in California, I oversaw our Legal Assistance branch, which provides legal advice and advocacy for active-duty and retired military members and their dependents. That was a tumultuous time in our nation’s history and many of my clients were hit hard by the housing crisis. At times it was emotionally taxing to see mortgage companies and judges ignore laws that protect service members from foreclosure. 

Despite the heartache I witnessed, my job was most rewarding when I successfully advocated for service members and retirees in various consumer-law disputes. In California and Hawaii, I prosecuted Airmen accused of violations of military law. Even though the military is a microcosm of American society, it was still surprising to see Airmen engaged in criminal acts such as illicit drug use and distribution, fraud and sex crimes. My last position, overseeing labor law as well as ethics, was extremely rewarding because it allowed me to directly engage with young Airmen, seasoned commanders and civilian employees to train and advise them on government ethics, civil rights laws and generally prevent them from landing in hot water.

Despite these mostly positive experiences, I, like many women, experienced sex discrimination and observed commanders take actions in violation of civil rights laws. Those experiences inform the work I do now and remind me that we still have quite a distance to go.

How do you use the skills you learned at Simmons in your work?

The skills of a journalist are very similar to those of an attorney and an investigator. At Simmons, I learned to look at both sides of a story, to question everything and to advocate for my position — skills that served me well as a military attorney. In my current job, I probe delicate issues of alleged harassment, hostile work environment, discrimination and retaliation and also facilitate settlement discussions. 

Simmons gave me a strong foundation by getting me out of my comfort zone on more than one occasion — like successfully debating West Point Cadets, interviewing bartenders ahead of the greater Boston smoking ban and learning about people and places significantly different from me.

What activities were you involved in while you were at Simmons?

I had the great fortune of playing first base for the Simmons Softball Team as a first-year student, editing the Simmons Voice newspaper as its editor-in-chief during my second year and participating in the Inter-Faith Coalition, where I learned more about the mosaic of spiritual beliefs among the Simmons community.

How did Simmons help prepare you for your career?

Simmons showed me the importance of listening to a multitude of diverse voices, no matter their social standing. While my journalism courses and experience editing The Voice prepared me for interviewing witnesses in court proceedings and now in federal investigations, other courses outside the Communications Department also laid a firm foundation.

In particular, courses like Professor Afaa Weaver’s Creative Writing and Professor Bob Goldman’s Statistics have informed the technical nuts and bolts of my job while my extensive courses in the Philosophy Department prepared me for a legal career and lifelong learning.

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