It was a Thursday night when I took my last final exam after finishing my second year at Tufts University. The very next Monday morning, rather than being home in Kansas, I would start a fourteen-week internship at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, DC.
Working in Foggy Bottom this summer showed me the diversity of the full range of duties of the State Department. I have been interning in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation – also called ISN – which covers some of the most pressing issues our world faces. While the Department’s regional bureaus promote U.S. foreign policy interests in a specific country or region, its functional bureaus, like ISN, look globally through the lens of a particular issue. ISN’s mission is to prevent the spread and use of nuclear, chemical, biological, and advanced conventional weapons. To do this, the bureau must look at the bigger picture. As a student of international relations and international security, sometimes I feel that I have to choose between specializing and broadening. During my internship, I have been impressed by the ability of both civil service and foreign service officers to be both specialists and generalists: they develop in both directions, focusing at times on the finest technical points and at other times on the most expansive resolutions, making themselves well-rounded individuals.
Even my own time at State has emphasized the need to build multiple strategies for different types of work. My work focused on Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy, which included advocacy on behalf of U.S. interests in issues such as North Korea’s nuclear program. On this issue and others, I worked in ISN’s press and outreach team. I took part in internal dialogues and collected information to facilitate our public responses. I wrote two summaries each day that highlighted media coverage of ISN’s issues, one for traditional news outlets and one for social media. ISN monitors different media platforms to know who is saying what, and whether the story being conveyed, particularly the very technical details, is correct. A big part of my job has been anticipation -- both in understanding what questions the media is likely to ask, and in monitoring potentially upcoming legislation that could impact our foreign policy. When we were tracking a hot issue, I worked ahead of time to research the individuals, policies, or media coverage involved. And I was given the chance to organize an outreach event and attend events on the D.C. think-tank circuit to take notes for my boss. It’s not just interns like me who end up doing so many different things - I’ve been truly impressed with how well people here work together in what could very well be distinct jobs with distinct mindsets.
There are a few things I would like people to know about the State Department. If it seems closed-off or overly opaque, that’s not because people aren’t friendly; they are hard at work on demanding tasks. Without exception, every employee of the Department that I have met has been thrilled to talk about his or her expertise, and many went out of their way to make me part of the team. That passion keeps people going. Before this summer, I could not have imagined working full time and leaving, thinking that the day had been one of my favorite days ever (walking past my boss who would stay even longer on my way out).
This summer has been a phenomenally interesting time to work in ISN, when the issues the bureau covers have been top-line news every day. America’s positive role in the world is only maintained so long as there are people willing to turn their passion into their work. My colleagues are sincerely committed to maintaining meaningful peace as something more than just the absence of war. Nothing could be more uplifting for a student like myself to see first-hand.
About the Author: Sterling Edgar served in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation at the U.S. Department of State.