This past summer, I had the opportunity to serve as an intern at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. in the Bureau of European Affairs, Office of Central Europe. During this experience, I worked on a variety of tasks including drafting briefing papers and talking points for department officials, attending and taking notes at think tank events, coordinating consultation schedules for outgoing foreign service officers, and participating in various department and intern activities to broaden my knowledge of a wealth of foreign policy topics.
When working in an environment that is so consistently focused on the entire world, it is very easy to have your entire worldview shifted. I felt this during my time as a Department of State (DOS) intern, as I learned that international relations are nothing like what political theory classes will teach you. As an international studies major specializing in international relations and diplomacy, this internship was, and is, perfectly aligned with my interests and hopefully my future career path. However, it took me the whole summer to return to that belief after losing it in the beginning of my internship. The government is plagued by its outdated bureaucracy, and the foreign service isn’t always the glamor of mingling with diplomats and engaging head-on in the international hot topics. It is a lot of paperwork. It is a lot of repeating what has already been said. It is a lot of pushing for policies and representing ideas you might not necessarily believe in. It can be disappointing in those aspects.
However, those realizations made foreign policy feel less elusive and more concrete and structured. Rules must be followed, but there is room for creativity. Protocol is of utmost importance in nearly every situation, but it is there for safety and security purposes. Bureaucracy presents itself in a frustrating way, but there are wonderful individuals behind it who believe in the greater purpose. It was exciting to learn that the “greater purpose” was barely influenced at all by domestic politics, but rather represented a bipartisan effort to promote America abroad. While domestic issues are absolutely crucial to our country, it was a welcome break to work towards something a bit less divisive in nature.
I had no real understanding of what foreign policy meant before this summer. Upon my arrival at the DOS, I was thoroughly disappointed to be put in a cubicle office with no windows. It wasn’t at all the image I had in my mind of a big, glamorous government building full of flags and people speaking other languages—although, when I looked past the cinderblock walls and bland hallways, those aspects were still there. It wasn’t uncommon for others in my office to speak Polish or German amongst each other, and the main building entrance has every flag of countries with which the U.S. has diplomatic relations. Nonetheless, it was discouraging and intimidating at first to be thrown into an office full of professional adults. What did I have to offer them?
It started slow, with somewhat menial tasks of collecting information that quite possibly no one will ever look at. However, I was quickly able to broaden into more meaningful writing tasks, including helping with a speech for a think tank discussion of the U.S.-Romania Strategic Partnership Dialogue. Helping with that task was a chance to prove myself to the office, and I did. I even got to attend the event where it was given and hear the words I wrote spoken aloud by someone much more important than I.
While writing has always been a strong point of mine, I also had opportunities this summer to learn completely new things. I knew little to nothing about energy security before my internship, but I was thrown into a project collecting information and writing summaries about each of the Central Europe countries’ energy policies and goals. I learned more about oil pipelines, liquified natural gas, and nuclear power plants than I ever thought I would. It also gave me the opportunity to work alongside our “science guy” in the office, a geology professor on a government fellowship, who taught me a lot about not only energy, but also what it feels like to work in the Department of State from an outsider’s perspective.
The people I worked with were the best part of my internship. While projects came and went, some fun but many somewhat tedious, the people always made it better. We were an office of about fifteen, plus three interns. I, being the only undergraduate intern, held the position as youngest, least experienced, least knowledgeable, and least skilled. However, that gave me the chance to learn something from every person I worked with, from the California graduate student I shared a cubicle with to the former theology professor on the Poland desk. They were all wonderful people with diverse experiences and worldviews, and they managed to make even tri-weekly hour-long staff meetings enjoyable.
All in all, I learned how diplomacy is really just about people. Foreign policy only exists because of people communicating with each other. If we didn’t have that, there would be no trade deals, no multilateral institutions, no strategic partnerships. Working at the State Department seemed boring at first because most tasks are either scheduling meetings, preparing talking points for meetings, or writing summaries of meetings. However, communication is the most crucial thing. That is what foreign policy is. I didn’t appreciate that at first, but throughout the summer—which was perhaps one of the most interesting summers to work in foreign policy—I came to that realization.
It was not a quiet time at the Department of State from May to August. With the new Secretary of State, people were more energized and hopeful. Decisions came from top-down, pushing for meetings like the North Korea Summit and the Trump-Putin meeting. I saw the behind-the-scenes of so much of it. While Central Europe didn’t have any major events of its own, I learned how foreign policy really does impact the whole globe. After these major events, our office would provide demarches to all of our countries, U.S. allies and mostly NATO Allies as well, as to what happened and what the next steps would be. Foreign policy permeates through the system – everyone is affected.
After experiencing these intricacies of communication, I feel more prepared to enter that world for real. Now, not only do I know how to write a briefing checklist or an annotated agenda, but I understand why they are important. It is not necessarily a glamorous life (though I was told that working in the Foreign Service at embassies and consulates is much more exciting than D.C.), but it is a life I can see myself living. To be constantly surrounded by intelligent individuals, always learning new things and exploring new ideas, writing speeches and briefing officials: those are things I’ve found I genuinely enjoy. I’m looking forward to finding a way to a career in the Foreign Service, and I am sure that when I do, I will be prepared, thanks to the skills and worldview I developed during this internship.
In the more short-term future, I was truly inspired by my summer immersed in learning about a region that isn’t top priority for most people. Going forward, I’ve chosen to pursue an individual undergraduate research project with a topic focused in the Central Europe area. I may not be able to impact policy related to Austria or Hungary or the Czech Republic for now, but I’m not quite ready to stop talking about it. This internship opportunity was the perfect glimpse not only into what I hope to do the rest of my life, but also an inspiration for what I want to study throughout the rest of college. I’m excited to see where it will take me next.
Name: Elena Akers
Majors: International Studies (International Relations & Diplomacy) and German
Project: Internship at U.S. Department of State, Summer 2018