PhD candidate | Harvard University
You are doing a PhD at Harvard. Why did you decide to do a PhD?
I like to think about topics and to explore them in depth. Getting a PhD allows me to do that because it is estimated here to take at least six years. I like to open things up and see the parts inside, like a mechanic but in the foreign policy realm. I thought that the best way to do that would be to take some time to really delve deep, and that's why I'm doing a PhD.
Why did you choose Harvard? You went to the Kennedy School there for your master’s degree as well.
The Kennedy School was my first introduction to Harvard. I went to get my master's in public policy directly after finishing my undergraduate degree, and it was a really good experience for me. It was different from doing the PhD programme that I'm in now, because it was focused on a professional life in public service.
My master’s degree introduced me to the school and gave me a flavour of what it would be like to study at a graduate level. Harvard has great professors at both the college and the professional schools. There's an opportunity to sample from all the schools: the business school, the law school, the Kennedy School, etc when you're doing any degree here.
I love that there is an Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School that brings in some great thinkers and doers from all around the world. They're business leaders, politicians and activists that come in from all around the globe to do forums. They do one and a half to two-hour talks with an audience that comes from either the student population or from the greater Cambridge community. All of that was available to me, so I knew that I would apply to Harvard for my PhD programme.
How did you apply? What was the process like?
The process is not as easy as applying to other graduate programmes. You really have to have an idea of what you want to study long-term. That's something that I had to sit with for a while, because it feels major. Even though a lot of people change their topics after they come to the school, Harvard still wants to see that you have some idea of something that's feasible for a political science dissertation. I spent time thinking about what I might like to write about before I even applied. Then I had to convey that in my essay.
Beyond that, I had to take the GRE. I had to study for that. I had to get letters of recommendation from other schools, and so I spent some time thinking about who might present me favourably to the admission there.
Harvard doesn't, but some schools require a writing sample. They're looking for something that you wrote either doing your undergraduate or master's programme. I don't think that they're looking for you to change it all that much from when you originally submitted it. Look for something that’s representative of how you think and write already. All of that takes a while to get together into a nice portfolio. If you're applying to more than one school, it can take even longer because you should tailor each application to the institution that you're applying to. You want to look at the faculty they have, and the resources they have at their programme, and then think about how what you want to study fits into their school. It's not something that you can pop out in a day or a week. It took me at least a couple months.
You’ll be doing your PhD until 2021. What are you planning to do after that?
Most people who do these PhDs end up going into academia. That's definitely something that I'm interested in. Most people go into academia after a PhD programme because you could go to a different programme that took less time, and there's no reason to really specialise so much, if you're planning to go into policy work or something that's politics-related but not necessarily academia-related. The programme that I'm in now is definitely catered towards developing somebody who would be a good professor at a university. I think that's the direction I'm headed in for now.
Sometimes I miss the exciting life of being a policy implementer, but there's something really great about being able to think about topics and to have the time and the resources to look in depth at a topic that excites me about academia.
Let's talk about your time at the Department of State. What did you do there?
I was a Foreign Service Officer, a diplomat. I was there for about five years, and I had two different jobs.
First, I worked in Alexandria (Egypt) as a public affairs officer. I oversaw our press outreach, our educational and cultural programmes. For example, we brought musical acts to Alexandria. We held huge concerts where people came out to experience things like bluegrass music or hip-hop music. We'd often have musical collaborations between local Egyptian artists and American artists.
We also ran our educational preparation. Egyptian students who want to study in the United States, usually for their undergraduate degrees but also sometimes for their graduate degrees, have to go through an unfamiliar process. We had a programme called Education U.S.A. that prepared students to take the SAT, to write application essays and to get recommendation letters from their teachers, because that was not the same process that they would have to go through to get into Egyptian schools.
The other part of that job was collaborating with institutions that were already in Alexandria. We had a great relationship with the modern version of the ancient library of Alexandria. We held collaborative events with them. It was all aimed at building relationships with everyday people in Egypt and helping them understand everyday people in the United States. They got a certain view of the United States from watching American movies or looking at the news. Obviously, the news is coloured by current events in the Middle East, so it's not easy to have a conversation, or to read a book, or to listen to music from the United States and to understand American culture in an unbiased way given the current political climate.
For my second job, I went on to Guangzhou (China) after a year of language training. I was a visa officer, so I spent my days interviewing people who were interested in coming to the United States on a temporary basis. I had to learn Chinese for that, so that was fun. I got to meet a wide array of Chinese people, everything from farmers and villagers from the outskirts of big cities to businessmen, artists and professors who were coming from the top universities and companies in China.
You worked on the VPOTUS motorcade as an advance associate at the White House. What did you do, exactly?
Anytime the president or the vice president is going to speak or participate at an event, a small team of people are sent to that place in advance to set up their trip. We help to set up the event in advance.
You had an internship at the White House before that. How did you end up doing work at the White House?
The internship gave me access into understanding how the White House works and understanding the Obama administration better. I wasn't doing anything grand when I was at the White House. I was definitely lowest on the totem pole, but it was just a really cool look inside this really important institution.
There, I met people who were involved in politics. The vice president also works out of the White House, and they needed some people to work on the advance programme. This was 2010, around the time of the midterm elections. Of course I was game. It sounded like a great idea to me. The stars aligned, and I was able to join the advance team for a couple months.
Do you think that being a woman of colour had an impact on your career?
Absolutely. Representing the United States abroad is a real privilege, but when you get to foreign countries, often people expect that they're going to meet with somebody else. They often think it will be somebody who's white, male and older. When I, a young, black woman in her 20s, walked into the room, they'd look at the door, wait for somebody else to come in, wonder why I was the one who was there. I thought that was a really great experience, because I opened their eyes to the diversity of the United States. That was really interesting.
In China, I felt very exotic, because people had often never seen anyone like me. Even when I was just walking down the street, I'd get lots of people who wanted to start conversations about who I was, where I was from, how I got my hair like that, and what I was doing in China. I always saw that as an opportunity to expand people's worldview. I had this awesome experience and opportunity to go abroad and to meet people who are very different from me, but a lot of the people who I would come into contact with abroad had never been abroad themselves, might never go abroad themselves, might live and die with a certain idea of what people in the United States look like or believe or who they are, and I think I changed that for a lot of people.
What would your advice be to a young woman who would like to join the Foreign Service?
Do it! It's a really cool career. It's different from most jobs, because you're completely immersed in a country for two to three years. You get paid to learn a different language. You don't do anything else while you're learning it, so you have an opportunity to get good at a language. I learned Chinese at the State Department, and I will continue to speak Chinese for a very long time thanks to that.
Applying is not as hard as many people think. The State Department doesn't have a lot of requirements for entering. You have to take an exam at a testing centre. There's a study guide online. It is a hodgepodge of different skill areas that they're testing, but it's not hard to sign up for. You sign up online. You only have to pay if you don't go. The next part of the application process is writing essays as part of a formal written application after you have taken the written test. After that, you do an oral examination, and then if you pass that, you get put on a roster of people who are eligible to join as soon as a new class is formed.
Overall, it's something that you can do while you're doing other things. I always say that if people are interested in joining the Foreign Service, they should do it while they're doing something else, because it takes a long time to join. It can take two years from start to finish, because there are so many checks going on behind the scenes.
It's worth it. You don't have a lot to lose by applying, to be honest. There's no required degree or specialisation. There's no particular work experience that they're looking for when you apply. More people who are diverse should join the Foreign Service.
I was also a part of a fellowship programme called the Thomas Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship. That fellowship is for underrepresented students to join the Foreign Service. Most who join through the Pickering Fellowship are women and people of colour. That allowed me to already have the knowledge that I would be joining the Foreign Service while I was in school, and it also helped me to get my master's degree because it gave me funding towards my master's degree at the Kennedy School. That was an additional boon towards that career for me, because I was able to study, to get an advanced degree, and have the time and luxury to prepare myself before I joined the Foreign Service. I think that that's another great opportunity for people who fit into those categories.
How do you think that having gone to Harvard, the Kennedy School, helped you join the Foreign Service?
I would have joined the Foreign Service even had I not gone to Harvard simply because of the fellowship that I had, but once I got into the Foreign Service, there were things that I learned at the Kennedy School that made me a better diplomat. One thing that I really appreciated about the Kennedy School was that it put me together with a group of people who were all very interested in helping people. I previously hadn't had access to such a community.
A lot of them were not coming straight out of undergraduate programmes, they had actually worked in the field. They had travelled to different countries. They spoke different languages. Some of them had worked domestically. They had given up on huge salaries and a luxurious life in order to pursue a life of meaning, purpose and service. I was inspired by those people, and I drew upon my connections with those people later on when I was working in the State Department by asking them for advice, or asking them to connect me with someone else who could help with the programme that I was doing. The group of people that I met at the Kennedy School was the most impactful part of the entire experience.
The other thing that was really useful was that it was an experiential learning experience. Coursework focused on giving you practice at speaking publicly, at writing policy memos, and at giving advice to large-scale organisations that were working on a certain problem. I got two years to get my feet wet in terms of learning how to handle mind-boggling problems in a low-pressure environment, with professors who were often practitioners, so people who had worked in the White House, in the State Department and in foreign governments. They had insight into how to solve problems and they could tell what they actually did when they were solving problems in their previous careers. Being in a mentorship with that type of a professor is a unique experience, and one that can't be replicated when you're doing the work because you're too focused on the work. Oftentimes policymakers don't have time to be exactly the type of mentors that teachers at the Kennedy School can be because they've just got to get things done more quickly.
Those were the two benefits of going to Harvard. The people who come through and do these forums, talks, speeches and special events for students are also really incredible people, so that was an additional plus. I still go to the Kennedy School now, just to sit in on events or speak to people whenever I'm thinking about a new project and I want to get some real-world insight into what's happening in the policy world and the public service world, because the Harvard schools are all very connected.
How did you decide to work in foreign policy?
When I was 12, I moved to Cairo (Egypt) with my family because of my parents. Both are teachers: my mother is an elementary school teacher and my father is a professor.
Before that time I had never left about three states within the United States. I had a very limited view of the world and what was around me. That experience living in Egypt, being immersed in a culture that was completely different from my own and learning a different language, made me realise how important it was to understand the perspectives of different people.
I was in an American international school in Cairo. Out of around 1,000 students, there was only a handful of black students and teachers, so I knew that my perspective was unique there. Often I would even have conversations with my peers where they didn't understand my perspective or they didn't get how African American culture was unique.
They didn't understand why my hair grew the way it did or they didn't know anything about important historical figures in my history, or about the art and music that sort of motivated the African American experience. All of that made me a cultural ambassador at a really young age and that was what made me want to get into diplomacy later on.
Sometimes you find yourself in a unique spot where you are a minority or somebody who has a different perspective. Those experiences show you how you uniquely and individually can shine. You’ve got to use those experiences to acclimate yourself to being different, because it's going to be a common phenomenon if you end up being successful.