Two women smiling with Adirondack chairs in the background.
Rochelle Upshur (left) and Lisa Gagliano, MBA graduates from the VCU School of Business, each earned highly competitive appointments as Presidential Management Fellows. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Two recent MBA graduates from VCU earn prestigious Presidential Management Fellowships

Lisa Gagliano and Rochelle Upshur join rare company in the federal leadership development program.

Share this story

Lisa Gagliano and Rochelle Upshur were separated by a year in their recent MBA studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, and they are pursuing different fields of expertise. But supporting each other, they now share a rare distinction: the honor of being named Presidential Management Fellows.

The PMF Program is the federal government’s top leadership development program for advanced degree holders. Dating to 1977, the program recruits professionals from varied academic disciplines who have a commitment to public service, and the paid two-year fellowships include challenging assignments, training and mentoring that foster new generations of government leaders.

From 2010 through 2024, there have been 157 applicants from VCU, and Gagliano and Upshur are only the ninth and 10th VCU graduates to achieve prestigious appointments as Presidential Management Fellows, according to the program.

“Lisa and Rochelle demonstrated remarkable academic records, strong leadership experience and dedication to serving the public interest,” said Helene Bumbalo, associate director of graduate professional development at VCU Business Career Services, who supported Gagliano and Upshur during the lengthy and rigorous application process. “Thousands of applicants vie for the roughly 400 to 600 spots awarded each year, so competition is fierce.”

Gagliano earned her Master of Business Administration degree from the School of Business in 2022, pursuing her studies while working as a grants administrator for the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. She is part of the 2023 PMF class, and since September, she has worked as a budget analyst for the Department of Energy in its Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations.

“It’s large-scale infrastructure to help combat climate change. I’m doing the administration and fiscal support that lets that work be possible,” said Gagliano, whose previous experience in environmental realms ranges from grants and budget work at the renowned Field Museum in Chicago to serving as a scuba instructor along the Caribbean coast of Mexico.

“We just celebrated our two-year anniversary, so it’s like working for a startup in where everybody is new,” Gagliano said of her office. “Setting up a brand-new office is always a challenge, so it’s very rewarding in that there’s constantly things to do and I’ve been given a lot of responsibility.”

Upshur earned her MBA in 2023 and recently learned that she is part of the 2024 PMF class. She has been working as a building operations manager at Bon Secours and can now apply for federal positions that are tagged for Presidential Management Fellows.

Upshur has notable roots in the field. When she started her MBA studies, she was working as an assistant director for facilities and operations at VCU. During her undergraduate years at the University of Virginia, she worked as a student building manager. And she had family experience to draw on: Her father was director of facilities at the Pentagon, and her mother worked as a civil servant, too.

In considering PMF roles, Upshur hopes to both use her current skillset and explore new directions. “I want to lean more into the project management side of organizations, whether that’s a one-year, two-year or a five year-project, to see an end-goal and set outcomes,” she said.

Upshur learned about the PMF Program on the Handshake employment recruiting platform, and she encouraged friend and fellow MBA student Gagliano to apply along with her in September 2022.

Two women sit at a table with a laptop. They are in conversation.
Lisa Gagliano (left) and Rochelle Upshur supported each other during the Presidential Management Fellowship application process. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

“I did not get it the first time,” Upshur said. “But Lisa did, which was awesome and great. I was in her corner and her team cheerleader along the way. What was nice about the PMF Program is that you can apply two times based on your graduation date.”

And for Upshur, the second time was indeed the charm.

Bumbalo praised Gagliano and Upshur’s resolve and talents to navigate the process – skills they can now apply in prominent settings.

“Earning this honor puts them on an accelerated career path to leadership roles that may have otherwise taken them decades to achieve,” Bumbalo said. “They will have unparalleled opportunities for professional development, leadership training and the chance to contribute to pressing national and international issues.”

Gagliano and Upshur are quick to cite the impact that VCU professors and courses have had on their recent achievements.

“I had teachers that I thought were really great,” said Gagliano, highlighting management and entrepreneurship professors Robert Kelly and Jay Markiewicz. “They allowed for the application of all the things we have learned and real-world scenarios. Their classes were really helpful.”

Upshur, who also cited professor Chris Reina, Ph.D., emphasized how the leadership and management coursework prepared students for careers in the public or private sectors – and for the PMF application process.

“Those classes were phenomenal – not only the material presented to us, but also how we were going to interpret it for ourselves as leaders, as well as learning from our other classmates,” Upshur said. “That definitely prepared me for the fellowship.”

She encouraged students from all disciplines to contact VCU Career Services for guidance in considering the PMF Program – and to “have a growth mindset and be open to the possibilities that are available within the federal government.” She said she already has met a wide variety of future PMF colleagues from academic majors as diverse as engineering, art, math, architecture and public health.

At the School of Business, Bumbalo is excited to see Gagliano and Upshur advance as Presidential Management Fellows.

“I expect both of these women to impact public policy and positively contribute to creating our nation’s solutions to the daunting issues we face,” she said. “I can’t wait to follow their career paths going forward!”