Greta Starrett is a second year MA student in the REECAS program at UW. She completed an internship in summer 2015 for the U.S. Department of State at the embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia.
I was back on Georgian soil. It was hard to believe: I had only left a little over a year earlier at the conclusion of my Fulbright fellowship and although I had expected to one day return, I had not expected it to be so soon. As I sat on the rooftop of a Tbilisi hostel, sipping tea and utterly exhausted from over 30 hours of travel, dawn broke. I heard the familiar, chaotic din of traffic and loud voices selling fresh produce from the streets below. Everything felt so familiar and I sat there wondering if I ever left.
I have long desired to work in diplomacy and now I was getting the chance to have a firsthand look at how foreign policy is conducted. During the winter and spring of 2015, I prepared for my return abroad: I did some research about what my job would be like, I began to make preliminary travel plans, and I went through the painstaking process of getting a security clearance, which I would not receive until the very last second at the end of June.
Life as a State Department Intern
It was hard to know what to expect starting work as an intern at the US Embassy in Georgia. In point of fact, I did not really know what I would be doing, if I was going to be able to carry out the duties of an actual Foreign Service Officer or if I would, as the now former U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Richard Norland, so aptly put it when I met him, just be pushing around paper clips. Luckily, it was the former and I was able to tailor my work to topics that were of particular interest to me.
In particular, I wanted to focus on issues pertaining to human rights with an emphasis on Georgia’s ethnic and religious minorities. Over the last decade, Georgia has sought to become a more democratic country that grants equal rights to the minorities with the Georgian ethnic majority and guarantees non-discrimination before the law. I wanted to see how the government was progressing in implementing legislation concerning these issues and did so by examining the different laws put in place since the 2003 Rose Revolution and by meeting with local NGOs who would have a better idea of what was happening on the ground. After gathering this information, I drafted reports that would eventually be included in the Embassy’s contribution to the Human Rights Report on the situation in Georgia. The Human Rights Report helps to drive active change in a country where human rights standards in specific areas have not been met. I was very pleased that I could assist the Foreign Service Officer in compiling this information and contributing to this effort.
I would work on other tasks as assigned: editing the daily briefing of news coming out of Georgia that Washington D.C. would find important to know; researching and writing cables; and attending weekly meetings to discuss and record the ever fluid events surrounding the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. I also had the chance to attend special events outside the Embassy, something that comes as part of the job as a Foreign Service Officer or as a State Department intern.
Preparing for a Career in Diplomacy
For as long as I have seriously contemplated what I wanted to do for a living, I have considered a career in diplomacy. As an undergraduate, I earned my degree in Russian language and literature, and also pursued a minor in Central and Southwest Asian Studies. Following graduation in 2013, I was fortunate enough to be selected as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in the Republic of Georgia. Fast forward to graduate school, I decided to apply for a summer internship with the U.S. Department of State. The call for applications came in the fall, eight months before the supposed start date. The reason it takes such a long time is that all applicants who are invited to participate in internships must get a security clearance. And the process of getting a security clearance is not a fast one. Rather, it is a laborious process that involves filling out a long and detailed form (SF-86), having an interview about the contents of that form, and then months and months of waiting while the US Government conducts background checks.
My journey does not stop with a State Department internship or graduate school. I would like to become a Foreign Service Officer and I have begun the long, arduous process of becoming one. It is a process that often takes several tries before candidates are successful – last year I took the written Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) and missed passing by half a point. It is a difficult test and some would say it is nearly impossible to study for. While I do not disagree, there are ways you can prepare so you at least have a better idea of what to expect. This year, I took the FSOT again and passed, which allowed me to move on to the section stage of the process, which involves writing six short personal essays. I am still waiting to learn if my effort was successful or not – this portion is considered one of the most difficult aspects of the application process as this is where the biggest cut in applicants takes place and is the most ambiguous. If I am lucky enough to pass this phase, I would move on to the Oral Assessment, which is a day-long series of group, individual, and written exercises.
The process of becoming a Foreign Service Officer is long, difficult, and can take many tries. If an applicant is unsuccessful at any point along the way, he or she must start the process all over again. And one can only take the exam once a year. It takes commitment, patience, and persistence to pursue a career in the US Foreign Service, but if it is what you really want to do – as I do – it will be well worth the effort.