While Georgetown students often imagine exotic, international careers in the foreign service, many are confused by the complicated and competitive application process. U.S. State Department Director General Linda Thomas-Greenfield clarified misconceptions about Foreign Service careers in a lecture about her own experience Friday afternoon.
The event, which was co-sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and the Walsh School of Foreign Service Graduate Career Development Center, gave students the opportunity to ask questions about the foreign service application process and employment specifics.
The event, which was originally supposed to be held in a conference room, was moved to the Intercultural Center Auditorium to accommodate the unexpected level of student interest.
Thomas-Greenfield, the current State Department director of human resources, began working for the foreign service in 1982, serving in Jamaica, Nigeria, The Gambia, Kenya, Pakistan and Switzerland. Most recently, she was the ambassador to the Republic of Liberia from 2008 to 2012.
Thomas-Greenfield discussed her non-traditional career path and her search to find a fulfilling career, saying she dabbled in academia, teaching and research before eventually joining the foreign service on a whim.
She encouraged students to pursue meaningful careers that interest them and suggested that students explore the unfamiliar and push themselves to adapt in difficult situations.
“I have personally benefitted from venturing outside of my comfort zone,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “Do something that is outside of your comfort zone, because it may lead you to a career path that can be rewarding.”
Thomas-Greenfield also discussed the importance of perseverance and self-confidence. She was told that if she continued to do only refugee work, she would never make it. About these naysayers, Thomas-Greenfield said, “They were wrong.”
Regarding rejection from the Foreign Service application process, she encouraged students to continue applying and taking the Foreign Service exam until they succeeded.
“You should see it as a campaign — most people don’t pass it the first time,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “If this is something you want to do, don’t give up on it.”
Amy Soderquist (GRD ’14) found Thomas-Greenfield’s advice practical.
“I’ve taken the foreign service exam before, and I didn’t get the job,” Soderquist said. “This is the event to go to learn more. It taught me more about paying attention to the first part of the application process.”
Thomas-Greenfield noted the impressive legacy of Georgetown graduates within the foreign service. In a highly selective service of foreign service officers that numbers a little more than 15,000, 796 are Georgetown graduates, and 316 graduates work within the civil service sector. Since 2004, more than 600 Georgetown students have interned for the State Department, with 27 interning this fall alone.
Thomas-Greenfield emphasized that while the State Department seeks employees with various skills and backgrounds, employees must work well with others to be truly successful.
“If you go and stay for two years somewhere and you don’t have a friend in that country, you’re not doing your job,” she said.
She also addressed the difficulties and opportunities provided by a career that involves packing up every two years and moving to a completely new location.
“I relish it. It has been an amazing experience to reinvent every two to three years,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “However, our families represent the United States, too. Trying to instill American values in my children while abroad has been extremely challenging.”
Tucker Colvin (SFS ’15) found Thomas-Greenfield’s words inspiring.
“I’m personally interested in the foreign service, and I’m trying to hear as many personal perspectives as possible,” Colvin said. “Every time I go to one of these events, I get excited about working within the foreign service.”