APS Development Assistant Erin Seamans had the opportunity to speak with Young Philatelic Leaders Fellowship alumnus Tasos Kalfas about his experience in the Young Philatelic Leaders Fellowship program, a scholarship program run by the American Philatelic Society. YPLF supports young philatelists, offers them unique opportunities to attend stamp shows across the country, and connects them with experienced mentors in the philatelic world. Tasos was a Class of 2018 Fellow, and now works as a Program Analyst at the U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General. As a Fellow, he completed the Curator track.
Read the full interview below.
Erin: Why did you choose to apply to YPLF?
Tasos: Right, so I chose to apply for YPLF in somewhat of a roundabout way, as I remember it. The summer of my high school freshman year, I discovered that pictorial postmarks were a thing. I started sending out dozens of letters trying to get the Post Office to send them back to me.
So, I ended up collecting dozens of these, and I remember my mom thought I was absolutely nuts. She even asked me why I was spending so much money on stamps! And all I could say is, "You know, I just really like them." From there, I guess my mom realized this was a hobby I was going to stick with. So she . . . I can't remember if it was my birthday or Christmas or something like that . . . but she got me a membership to the APS.
Oh, that's cool!
Yeah. I had seen the APS mentioned here and there. I saw APS advertisements come back with some of the pictorial postmarks, but it never really dawned on me to sign up for the APS. I wasn't really sure how the APS would help me as a young collector, so I never signed up.
So, my mom gave me membership as a gift and when I got my first issue of The American Philatelist, I was like, "okay this is interesting.” I started flipping through the issue and saw an advertisement for the Young Philatelic Leaders Fellowship. I said, "Okay, a stamp show sounds interesting. I've never heard of that before, and YPLF is advertising that they're going to send me to one . . . so why not? I'm kind of interested in checking that out."
So I applied and Cathy [APS Director of Education] interviewed me, and basically the rest is history.
What did you expect to accomplish in the program?
At the time that I applied to YPLF, I had just graduated from high school. I was moving on to George Washington University in D.C., and one of the things that I was trying to find through my college studies was what I wanted to do with my life. What career options do I have ahead of me and what do I want to spend most of my time doing? So that was what I expected to accomplish from the program: not only to discover what the heck a stamp show was and what the stamp world really is, but also to orient myself and try to get an understanding of the different career fields out there.
And one of the career fields I was interested in at the time was museum curator. What is really awesome about Cathy is that she had the Curator Track in mind but didn't have it established yet, and I was happy that she was able to implement it for my year so I could explore being a Curator and find out what making an exhibit is all about.
Oh wow, that's awesome. So it was specialized just for you
Not necessarily, I think Cathy had it in the works. And I came around, like "That looks interesting, let's try it out." So she accelerated it a little bit. I'm very grateful for her taking that step and allowing me to do that.
That's a great story: that APS membership was a gift from your mom, and then you stumbled upon YPLF in The American Philatelist. And that has brought you to the U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General (OIG).
In a roundabout way, yes. Actually, the only reason I initially applied for an internship at the OIG was because I needed a way to pay for my summer housing in DC while I finished the exhibit I was creating with YPLF and the National Postal Museum.
But after finishing my studies, I stuck around, and now I work with the OIG full time as an analyst on audit teams. I get to go to individual postal facilities and identify opportunities for improvement. I’ve also been a part of some longer-term projects looking at overall USPS strategies, nationwide programs, and ways to prevent fraud, waste, and abuse. I see the Postal Service as a great vehicle to connect people and businesses across America, so I view my job as a great opportunity to work for the American public and learn more about the Post Office at the same time.
I'm interested to know about any moment or memory from your time as a Fellow that was significant in your learning process? . . . you said that you were the first in the curator track.
Right, I was in the curator track. As a part of the curator track, I got to develop an exhibit with Dan Piazza, one of the curators at the Postal Museum . . . the chief curator of Philately. It was really neat to develop that project with him; I got an inside view of what really goes on there at the National Postal Museum. Honestly, if I was to recall one moment or memory from my time as a Fellow it's not necessarily one point but it's just all the time and energy and attention Dan gave me as a mentor. Dan was always interested in my ideas - even if he challenged them. So that support from Dan as a mentor really was instrumental in my YPLF experience, and I'm very grateful for it.
You can't go wrong with a mentor who is open to any idea that you have and at the same time challenges it . . . so that you can really learn more than from someone who just says "Oh that's great, okay." Challenging can create a lot of learning as well.
And that happens a lot in the stamp community as well . . . where you have an idea or there's a certain way that you want to produce an exhibit . . . there's always someone who's willing to give you unfiltered feedback. And honestly, that's one of the great things about having a stamp community; being able to connect with one another and share stamps with others.
I know that you are working with philately in a general sense in your job now but in what other ways have you been involved with the philatelic community since graduating from YPLF?
I’ve stayed involved in a few ways. During the pandemic, my YPLF cohort got together virtually to catch up. It was really great reconnecting with Grace, Darren, and Dani again.I also volunteer every other weekend at the Postal Museum, and I’ve got plans to stop by NAPEX with a friend in a couple weeks.Over the past few years, I’ve mostly been passively involved, but I can’t pass up an opportunity to see a neat cover every now and then.
I know you touched a little bit about your current job right now as a Program Analyst but I'm curious about how your time as a Fellow has informed your work as a Program Analyst.
As an analyst with the OIG, I’m often investigating programs and operations and trying to identify ways things can be done better, and I often encounter situations where there is limited information. In some ways, it’s the same with stamp collecting. You might encounter a cover with a postmark you’ve never seen before or an intriguing stamp you want to know more about. From then, it’s a constant hunt for information that can help you understand the object you’ve found. In that way, YPLF taught me how to be innovative and creative when searching for information; there isn’t always a straight or easy answer in stamp collecting, and I’ve found it to be the same in the government audit world.
That sounds great. I mean I've heard you say this a couple times through the interview . . . about innovation . . . and having ideas and being able to bring them to people who will take them and either look at them right there or challenge it. I feel like you've learned that from your mentor and you're talking about it at the APS and how you're doing it right now. So being a very creative spirit is important to you.
What would you say to someone considering joining YPLF?
Well honestly, if you love stamps or you love the post office and postal history, it’s the best thing you can do. Like I said, I had no idea of what a stamp show even was before I joined the YPLF. And to go to that first show in Richmond and see everything happening on the floor, everyone sharing their collections with you at the YPLF booth . . .you get to discover what the stamp collecting world is and what you can contribute to it. YPLF fellows meet amazing people who want to share everything about the postal world and stamp world with them. And you’ll also make some lifelong friends along the way. So to someone considering joining YPLF, I say go ahead, do it! There’s no reason not to.
I'm also curious: Where is the farthest stamp show that you have traveled to? Because you say you live in D.C. . . .
I think the farthest stamp show I've been to as a YPLF Fellow was Birmingham, Alabama. I think it was the last APS winter show, if I'm remembering correctly. I have also been to shows in Virginia, Ohio, Chicago, and Bellefonte. But I don't think those would beat Birmingham out in distance.
I think that sounds like the furthest. Do you think you'll ever go out to the west coast?
So I hear there’s a postal history museum in Tucson! I’d like to make it out there eventually. And California’s been home to some pretty neat postal operations in the past, so it’d certainly be worth a visit.
What do you collect?
I never have a good answer to this since there’s always something new I end up bringing home from a stamp show! But I think I’ve settled mostly on cachets. I'll really like a couple of the cachets my friend Dani, who I met through the YPLF program, designed. And there’s always a few artists who pop up in my Etsy feed every once in a while.
My last question: is there anything else you would like to share with our audience of fellows, alumni, donors, and potential applicants?
I want to say thank you to everyone who is involved with the program, who volunteer their time, who volunteer their money, and who keep the program alive. Going into college, I didn't really think that I would be working for the Postal Service or anywhere near philately, or that I would have had the experiences that I've had. But thanks to the YPLF program . . . that really led me to being interested in the postal world and working for the OIG. So I'm really grateful to those who continue to run the program and who continue to get people involved.