By Justin Bailey
When doors have opened or opportunities arisen, Roman Napoli has taken the opportunity. Put another way, throughout his career, Napoli has answered the call to serve. It’s that willingness that led The Bush School to name him the 2020 Outstanding Alumnus.
“This is absolutely a huge honor,” Napoli said. “I learned so much during my years at The Bush School, and to be recognized for a career that, frankly, wouldn’t have come to pass without what I learned there—it’s incredible.”
Napoli grew up in a small town in Louisiana, where his father was a “country doctor,” in Napoli’s words, and his mother a teacher.
“I remember as a kid my dad running for city council once on a single issue platform of increasing flood drainage,” Napoli said. “He lost, but we got the flood drainage fixed, and so I think I always knew that you can impact the system if you get involved.”
That formative experience would have an impact on Napoli’s career trajectory, but not immediately. He enrolled at Vanguard University in California to study psychology.
“I assumed I would be a psychology professor working on cognitive issues,” Napoli explained. “I mean, my first published journal article I have ever had was in infant psychology, and I actually came to Texas A&M as a psychology PhD candidate.
“I didn’t even know what public administration was at first.”
“I remember my advisor in the psychology department telling me that I was too good at running her lab, and I should probably rethink my career. I hated having to switch because I had an amazing office in the Academic Building that I had to give up!”
Napoli tested the waters by taking an intelligence class taught by Professor Jim Olson and knew almost immediately that a career change was in his future.
“I didn’t even know what public administration was at first,” Napoli said. “But I felt at home at the Bush School immediately. I recently wrote about three leadership lessons I learned from President Bush, but there was this familiarity that is so hard to explain. It was surreal. You could walk out and talk to the President while he was fishing out back and meet the First Lady. I just don’t know how to explain that to some of the students today.”
The former President and First Lady were fixtures at the Bush School in those days: sitting in on classes, socializing with students, and even organizing gatherings.
“I remember one time the President had asked if horseshoe pits could be added to the Bush School grounds,” Napoli recalled. “He wanted to do a horseshoe tournament and pair students and his friends. The President had paired me up with former Ambassador Roman Popadiuk. Honestly, I was thrilled until I got the joke. He had paired the two Romans together. All day, at every chance he could get, he would say, “Hey, Roman” and then laugh when both of us turned around.”
Being the butt of a former President’s joke was more than a surreal experience. Napoli said any time he was around him, he soaked in the wisdom of a man who’d dedicated his life to public service.
“One time I asked how he felt about popular imitations of himself on SNL and the Simpsons,” Napoli said. “I specifically asked about the negative representations. He laughed and then said something offhand about how he tells everyone he never watches, but he did.
“He then shared something that I have always been struck by. He said that being a public servant meant being in the public. You can’t control how the public will see you, but you can control how you will serve it. If serving the public means they make assumptions about who you are and think that is funny, then fine. That is the cost of service. The jokes weren’t going to stop him from doing what was right.”
Napoli took those lessons and embarked on what has become a truly remarkable career.
“I didn’t see DC in my future when I was at the Bush School, but I was prepared when the opportunity presented itself because of my time at the School.”
Napoli worked initially as a budget analyst at the Drug Enforcement Agency. He then moved on to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), where he has spent the majority of his career.
“I just kept saying yes to opportunities, and that opened even more doors to me. I mean, now I see the tremendous privilege that I had.”
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into Napoli’s home state of Louisiana. The devastation was immense, and Napoli, who was working on international disasters, felt called to help domestically.
“So after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, I was crushed. It felt so insane to be working on hurricane recovery projects in Central America, which is what I was doing in 2005. I remember watching Kayne West and Mike Meyers on that Red Cross fundraiser right after Katrina and just laughing and crying and needing to do more.”
Napoli and his wife left the nation’s capital and headed south.
“I can’t remember how it happened exactly, but I got a job with FEMA in Louisiana. I didn’t know if we would ever go back to DC. My job was as the Special Assistant to the Director of the Louisiana Transitional Recovery Office. Basically, I was an all-purpose problem solver. I understood international development a little, but more importantly, I was the most senior person on staff from Louisiana. I knew the people and the mentality.”
FEMA was widely criticized at the time for its response. Napoli explains that he lived it.
“There definitely was an undercurrent of racist, classist attitude that I noted immediately,” Napoli said. “I always thought, Wow, some of these people swam for miles before being saved only to be treated like second-class citizens. They were survivors twice over—first from Katrina and again from those that were supposed to help them in those early days.
“We didn’t have reasonable policies on rescuing people with pets before Katrina. We barely had policies on accepting offers of assistance from other countries. Louisiana never gave up. They endured; they thrived. How can I not be proud?”
In time, change did happen—thanks in part to Napoli’s work.
What for many would have been a career highlight was only a first act for Napoli, who returned to Washington, DC, and ended up back at USAID, where the current administration proved an opportunity to assess what the Agency was and how prepared it was for the current global challenges it faces.
“I can easily say that reforming an entire federal agency is definitely a career highlight. It had been since Andrew Natsios was running the halls of the Ronald Reagan Building that USAID had a top to bottom rationalization,” Napoli explained.
He was able to be part of a years-long effort to reorient and reshape the agency for the 21st century.
“We used the transformation to revalidate the value of an independent USAID, we fought for development and staffing resources, and we made lemonade out of lemons,” Napoli explained. “I was able to work on rewriting the Agency Mission Statement. I did over forty town halls with our employees and dozens of engagements with our partners and stakeholders. It was one of the most transparent and collaborative reforms ever. The Government Accountability Agency gave us the highest score of any agency doing a reform, based on criteria they created a year after we had started. We aced a test that was being written in real time.”
Napoli has not stopped saying yes. Over the past few months, he agreed to be the lead on coordinating foreign assistance funding for COVID-19, which includes providing over a billion dollars in humanitarian, health, and economic assistance to over 120 countries—a truly global response and recently was named to lead the State Department’s efforts to prepare for a COVID-19 vaccine.
Additionally, Napoli makes an effort to stay involved with The Bush School.
“Roman is a busy man doing important things,” Bush School Assistant Dean for Diversity & Student Affairs Matt Upton said. “In spite of that, he still makes a point to help us when he’s able. He recently flew to College Station to serve on our alumni panel, and he’s a fixture at our annual Dean’s Reception in DC.”
Napoli also works to get other Bush School alumni internships and career opportunities at USAID and is excited about any opportunities to help with The Bush School’s new Washington, DC, teaching site.
For his willingness to stay involved and his many achievements, The Bush School faculty and staff were excited to honor Napoli with the annual Outstanding Alumnus award.
“Each year, we look at multiple alumni who are deserving of recognition,” Bush School Dean Mark Welsh said. “Roman stands out for more reasons that I can list. He answered the call when his home state needed him. He’s done an immense amount of good internationally through his work at USAID, and incredibly, he still has a huge chunk of his career ahead of him. We couldn’t be more proud to call him one of our own.”