Foreign Service Officer at U.S. Department of State
The views expressed here are Laila Hasan’s and do not reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or United States Government.
What do you do?
I am a Diplomat in the United States Foreign Service. My current assignment is in the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, where I cover our Countering Violent Extremism policies across Europe.
Where are you based?
I'm based in Washington, D.C. right now. Previously, I was posted at our embassies in Beirut and Brussels, and I returned to Washington in 2015. This summer I will start a one-year assignment in the State Department’s Operations Center, followed by an assignment at Embassy Paris starting in 2018.
How did you join the State Department?
After graduating college, I joined the Department of Defense as an Arabic Language Analyst, focused on Middle East and Counter-terrorism issues, but it had always been my dream to work at the State Department. In middle school, I idolized Madeleine Albright as she became the first female Secretary of State. I couldn't imagine a cooler job than traveling around the world and meeting with foreign dignitaries, and my inner feminist was thrilled that a woman represented America abroad. Nearly 15 years later, I signed up to take the Foreign Service written exam, and after a series of interviews and tests spanning more than a year, I was sworn in as a Foreign Service Officer in 2010.
Any advice for someone who would like to join the Foreign Service?
I would encourage anyone who is thinking about joining the Foreign Service to sign up and take the exam. Many people think you have to be a student of international affairs, politics, or history in order to pass the entrance exams, but that isn’t the case at all. Of course knowledge of foreign affairs is important, but a diverse academic background is equally valuable.
Our job as diplomats is to represent America abroad, and it is essential that our colleagues reflect the diversity-whether racial, ethnic, religious, geographic, academic-that enriches our great nation. Among the members of my orientation class, we had former lawyers, journalists, and even a pilot. There isn’t one cookie cutter profile or biography needed to be a successful Foreign Service Officer. What matters is a curiosity of the world around us, an appreciation for different cultures and languages, and a commitment to representing the United States’ values and ideals, both at home and abroad.
You said you're moving to Paris next. How do you pick your assignments?
Our first two assignments, in my case Beirut and Brussels, are assigned to us by the Department. For subsequent tours we go through a process called ‘lobbying’, where we bid on available posts or offices based on our regional interests, linguistic capabilities, or subject matter expertise.
I feel very lucky to have been selected for both the Operations Center and Embassy Paris. My portfolio in Paris, where I will serve as a Political Officer, will include Middle East issues and engagement with France’s Muslim communities. My academic background is in International Affairs and the Middle East, and I speak Arabic and French, so I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to incorporate various aspects of my background and experience into one assignment.
Why did you pick countering violent extremism as one of your areas of expertise?
I was in Beirut, serving the first year of my first Foreign Service tour, when the Arab Spring broke out. I was a Political Officer covering human rights and refugee issues when the Syrian civil war began, and before I knew it I was accompanying our military officers to survey the Lebanese-Syrian border and assess the number of refugees fleeing to Lebanon. In 2011, we could not begin to imagine what atrocities would ensue in Syria, nor the rise and global impact of ISIL that would soon emerge. By the time I arrived in Brussels in 2013 for my second Foreign Service tour, Belgium held the dubious honor of sending one of the highest levels of foreign terrorist fighters to Syria and Iraq to fight with ISIL. I dedicated a large portion of my assignment in Brussels to developing strategies and programs to foster social cohesion among Belgian minority communities, improve community policing efforts, and exchange best practices with Belgian government officials and civil society leaders, all aimed at ultimately reducing the number of foreign terrorist fighters.
Despite working on these issues for several years in the field, I often discounted the impact my own minority background had when meeting with minority communities in Europe, and the apparent positive influence a diverse workforce and diplomatic corps could have. This manifested itself in one of my proudest moments in the Foreign Service, while sitting with a group of Belgian Muslim activists, strategizing ways to counter rising Islamophobia across Europe. As we discussed tactics for amplifying their voices and crafting counter-narratives to hate speech, one of the activists told me I was a role model. That my mere existence as the daughter of a Muslim immigrant, now serving abroad as an American diplomat, was something many young European Muslims didn’t dare to imagine they could achieve. Yet by seeing me in front of them, it inspired the dream of a different future for themselves and the continued pursuit of religious freedom and social integration. I can’t imagine a greater feeling than knowing our country’s work abroad is having such a direct impact on communities, and it’s with that sense of pride that I keep trying to fight violent extremism in all its forms.
Do you think being a woman of color has had an impact on your career so far?
I think everyone’s identity impacts their career in one way or another, and mine is certainly no different. While I’ve faced challenges due to both my gender and ethnicity, I’ve always drawn strength from the fact that the United States is a nation of immigrants and everyone has a unique story to tell. Everybody has a voice, and everyone deserves a seat at the table. In order to tackle today’s toughest obstacles, we need to take into account diverse opinions, perspectives, and experiences. One of the ways to achieve this is by cultivating a diverse workforce that mirrors society. Traditionally, defense and counter-terrorism fields have been male-dominated arenas, but today there are many more women of all backgrounds pursuing careers in these field. It’s imperative that we work together to support these young women, empowering them to be part of the next generation of strong leaders. As a woman and the daughter of a Muslim immigrant, I know first-hand the struggles one can face just to get a seat at the table. But now that I have, I see it as my responsibility to help ensure there are enough place settings at the table for those who follow.
What would be your advice to a reader who is looking for a career like yours?
I would recommend choosing assignments that make you excited to go to work. Now of course no job is exciting every day, but if you pursue your passions and interests-instead of what you think will get you promoted fastest-then you’ll have a much more satisfying, challenging, and fun career along the way. It also really helps to be flexible, open-minded, and have a healthy sense of humor to get you through the inevitable hiccups that occur while living and working abroad. And no matter where in the world you’re stationed, never underestimate the importance of a strong support system of family and dear friends to help you through life’s toughest moments.
What's your biggest challenge at work?
Countering violent extremism work can at times be arduous, and concrete short-term victories often elusive. Much of what we do strives to have a long-term impact to reduce levels of recruitment and radicalization to violence, and stem the flow of foreign terrorist fighters. We seek to bolster community resilience, foster social cohesion and integration, and develop frameworks and tools to amplify credible voices to counter violent extremist narratives. I’m confident that our work will have a positive impact overall, but it can be difficult to measure short-term success. As such, while we have robust strategies and policies, from time to time it gets frustrating to not make an immediate impression.
What's your favorite thing about your job?
It’s an honor and a privilege to have a career that allows me to not only support and defend the United States Constitution every day, but to also represent the American people abroad. My colleagues are smart, talented, caring people, whose breadth of experiences enrich the fabric of our professional tapestry, and I am constantly learning from them.
The people-to-people dynamic is what originally drew me to diplomacy. I love gaining a deeper understanding of people’s hearts and minds, listening to their stories, learning what makes them tick. There is nothing quite like being in the field, getting to engage with brave individuals who are on the front lines tackling a myriad of issues. It’s only in the field that you can witness the true implications of our foreign policies, bearing witness to the impact they have on the ground. These first-hand interactions allow us to appreciate the intricate nuances of our work, and, in turn, makes us better policy makers back in Washington.
You went to The George Washington University for your degree. What was that like?
I absolutely loved it. I grew up in Arizona about an hour north of the Mexican border, so moving to Washington, D.C. at 18 without knowing a soul was quite daunting. Initially I felt like a fish out of water, but it was fascinating to be in the nation’s capital studying international affairs. Thanks to the dynamic professors and supportive classmates, though, I quickly felt at home. There were endless opportunities to be politically active, volunteer for philanthropic causes, and intern at a wide variety of NGOs, think tanks, and the private sector. I’m grateful for such a hands-on degree that cultivated a deep sense of social responsibility, and a supportive university environment where I made amazing friendships that I treasure to this day.
How was it being in Washington on 9/11?
It was horrifying, surreal, and overwhelming. Nobody knew what was happening or who had attacked us. When I close my eyes, thinking back on that sunny Tuesday morning, I can still see the smoke rising from the Pentagon. GW’s campus was on lockdown. Military tanks were on the street corners, soldiers and police officers were checking our ID cards. The tragedy shook the nation, and perhaps the world, to its core.
The aftermath of the attacks was a turning point for me personally. I became much more conscious of having a Muslim last name, and people started asking questions about my ethnicity. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked “where are you really from?” As if somehow my name, my background, couldn’t possibly be “American.” But that couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, I can’t imagine my family’s story being possible in any other country. The fact that the daughter of a small-town Kentucky mother and a Pakistani immigrant father is now serving as an American diplomat makes me immensely proud. And it’s with that sense of pride and gratitude for all this country has afforded us that I pursued a career in public service.
What is your wish for 2017?
This year will not only present intense challenges for our country, but will also provide great opportunities to initiate dialogue, promote collaboration, and foster constructive engagement with one another. As we head into 2017, I hope we are able to embrace our differences and work together for the betterment of the entire nation.