By Zoe Day
Global Public Affairs at UCLA Luskin hosted an informational session for students wanting to learn more about career paths and opportunities in U.S. government and international development. The Feb. 7 event featured guest speakers Cecilia Choi from the State Department, Alfred Nakatsuma of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Jeffrey Janis from the Peace Corps. The three shared personal experiences, answered questions about their respective sectors, and advised students how to pursue futures in international development and government.
Choi, U.S. State Department diplomat in residence, discussed the availability of careers in diplomacy, stressing the benefits of combining humanities and writing skills with technical backgrounds in IT or STEM.
“You have one life to do something meaningful,” said Choi, who has served as the director of trade and investment at the National Security Council, deputy director in the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, and food safety advisor at the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs. Now a visiting fellow at UCLA recruiting talent for careers in public service and global affairs, Choi is a valuable resource for students interested in learning more about diplomacy and government careers.
As a USAID diplomat in residence who has served in Asia, Latin America and Washington, D.C., Nakatsuma highlighted the development side of foreign policy. The agency aims to lift lives and build communities through development assistance abroad, he said, adding “[USAID] isn’t a job. It’s a life.”
Nakatsuma said the plethora of specialties within international development include humanitarian assistance, female empowerment, energy access, global health, education, innovation and technology, clean water and more. For undergraduates interested in international development, Nakatsuma recommended, “Figure out what you love to do and what pulls you. Figure out what kind of thing you’d like to do in a developing country. Develop skills, take classes, expose yourself to real-world applications, learn how development works.”
Nakatsuma will be returning to UCLA during spring quarter.
Janis is a returned Peace Corps volunteer who currently works as the UCLA Peace Corps campus recruiter. The Peace Corps requires a 27-month commitment to work abroad, during which volunteers are strongly encouraged to “live at the local level,” Janis said. With 70% of Peace Corps volunteers in their 20s, many returnees go on to pursue careers in foreign service, including with the State Department and USAID.
Volunteering for the Peace Corps demonstrates “capacity to work with other cultures,” which is essential to careers in international development, said Janis, who also spent years in the nonprofit sector.
His time in Ukraine with the Peace Corps was “the best experience of [his] life” despite the difficulties, Janis said. It’s “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”
Janis is available in the UCLA Career Center to help students interested in volunteering for the Peace Corps through the application process.
Choi, Nakatsuma and Janis also discussed scholarship and fellowship opportunities within their respective organizations. They included the State Department’s Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship, which offers financial support for recipients in graduate school, guarantees two internships in Washington, D.C., and at an embassy overseas, and includes a five-year employment contract as a Foreign Service Officer. Among the students attending the Global Public Affairs event was Ankhet Holmes, a second-year Public Policy student at UCLA and 2016 Pickering Fellow.
The Charles B. Rangel Graduate Fellowship also supports graduate students interested in pursuing a career in the State Department’s Foreign Service Office. USAID offers the Donald M. Payne International Development Fellowship for graduate students interested in working in international development, and the Peace Corps offers scholarships of up to $70,000 for volunteers who attend graduate school.
Choi also had advice for undergraduates, urging them to gain work, leadership and volunteer experience in preparation for careers in government and international development.
View more photos from the GPA session on Flickr.
By Zev Hurwitz
Students looking to pursue careers in diplomacy had a firsthand look at working in the field during a lunchtime talk with Diplomat in Residence Heather Joy Thompson.
In her talk, titled “Careers in Diplomacy: An Insider’s Perspective,” Thompson walked through her own journey to the diplomatic corps as well as what it takes to join the Foreign Service.
The first step is taking the Foreign Service Officers Test, which has both exam and essay components, Thompson said. Applicants with high enough scores are invited to Washington, D.C., for an in-person interview that can take an entire day.
“This was the toughest interview I ever had in my life,” Thompson told the crowd of about 40 undergraduate and graduate students at the May 24, 2018, talk.
Successful applicants are placed into a pool of prospective diplomatic officers. If selected for assignment, they spend six to eight weeks in what Thompson calls “Diplomacy University” in Arlington, Va., learning foreign languages and developing professional skills for their careers in the service—all the while receiving salary to do so.
“I have never heard of a job where you are in school full-time and don’t have to report to an office but still get paid,” Thompson said.
Prospective diplomatic officers choose a desired track, including economics, politics, management and media relations, Thompson said. They remain in the pool for up to 18 months, after which they must apply again.
Thompson said her path to the Foreign Service was “unique.” Originally a Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso, Thompson’s experience working in a region with no plumbing or electricity forced her to do a “deep dive” into her education.
“In a lot of ways, it settled me in a way that other positions probably couldn’t,” she said.
Following the Peace Corps, Thompson earned her law degree but decided against pursuing a career at a firm. A mutual acquaintance introduced her to a diplomat who steered her toward the State Department.
Thompson also once worked for Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs after winning a YouTube competition to be the rapper’s assistant.
In the Foreign Service since 2008, Thompson has been stationed in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Washington, D.C., and most recently worked as an economic officer in Mexico City’s U.S. Embassy.
At the UCLA Luskin talk, the final event of the 2017-2018 Senior Fellows Speaker Series, Thompson said the current political environment is somewhat challenging to the goals of her team. Nonetheless, she believes it is important to persevere.
“We are still here to do the work of the American people,” Thompson said. “Unless you are self-employed, it’s hard to find an employer with whom you agree 100 percent of the time.”
On the whole, Thompson said she very much enjoys her work as a diplomat.
“I think I have the best job on the planet,” she said. “The experience my colleagues in Foreign Service and I have are unparalleled in the private and public sector.”
Thompson is this year’s Diplomat in Residence for the State Department’s Southern California region, which includes Hawaii and Nevada. Diplomats in Residence are housed at UCLA Luskin, where they often engage with students through the Senior Fellows Program.
“Working for the U.S. State Department can be an outstanding career for the right person,” VC Powe, director of career services and leadership development at UCLA Luskin, said after Thompson’s talk. “UCLA Luskin is fortunate annually to host a Diplomat in Residence for the benefit of the greater UCLA community.”