Acting Cultural Affairs Attaché | United States Embassy in Rome
Menaka thank you very much for taking some time out of your busy day to talk to Women in Foreign Policy. As a Foreign Service Officer at the United States State Department, it would be great to hear about what your current role is and what your average day looks like?
Currently, I am the acting Cultural Affairs Attaché at the US Embassy in Rome. I am responsible for six staff and my team and I arrange a whole array of programming ranging from bringing over expert speakers to talk about pertinent policy issues, to managing cultural and academic exchanges.
In terms of my average day, I would say that no two days are alike. I might attend a conference that the Embassy is supporting; travel to a university with a speaker who is giving a presentation; interview candidates for an entrepreneurship fellowship; stop by the opening of an art exhibition that we have funded; or oversee an outreach event that we are holding at the US Ambassador's residence. I do spend a lot of time in the office. There is a lot of administrative and management work which includes overseeing grants and budgets and allocating resources judiciously, as we are supposed to be stewards of the US taxpayers. We also organise lots of events and speeches for the Ambassador and the Deputy Chief of Mission.
I will be finishing up here in Italy in a few months, so I am also starting to plan that transition. In August I will be starting a fellowship as part of a mid-career development opportunity that the State Department provides. My goal is to explore different facets of volunteerism and civic engagement in America.
Is it common that people take a sabbatical year or is this a new development that the State Department has brought in?
This particular fellowship has been around for several years as the result of a very generous donation by a woman called Una Chapman Cox and the foundation that she set up. One of the things her foundation supports is this sabbatical year for Foreign Service Officers. Through a competitive process, I was awarded one of the two fellowships on offer each year.
This programme is part of a broader range of fellowships and training opportunities that the State Department offers to mid-level professionals that tries to give them a year out of the ordinary cycle of assignments, and it can be a great chance to expand your professional horizons.
You have worked for the State Department for a number of years. Could you tell us about the postings you have had so far? In your view what have been the highlights of those postings and what have been some of the challenges?
I joined the State Department in 2006, which seems like a really long time ago now! My first tour was as a Political and Economic Officer in Banjul in the Gambia. It was a small embassy, so I was able to gain a huge amount of experience. At the time the President of the Gambia had what you might call some autocratic tendencies, so the human rights situation was very challenging. That provided a lot of challenges for our work, but also gave me the opportunity to be responsible for a lot of very concrete achievements, including helping the government to strengthen their laws and prosecution capacity on the trafficking of persons. I am happy to say now that the situation seems to be vastly improved in the Gambia.
After that, I studied Thai and I went to Bangkok. There, I spent one year as a consular officer doing visa interviews and assisting American citizens, which was very gratifying and also very difficult, as a lot of the cases involved death or sickness or other unfortunate circumstances. During my second year there I was the assistant cultural affairs officer, which gave me fantastic experience in public diplomacy - which is my designated career path in the Foreign Service.
Then after Thailand, I went to Washington DC where I briefly worked in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs on a program called the International Visitor Leadership Program, which is considered the State Department's premier professional exchange program for emerging leaders.
After that I served as the deputy to the Secretary of State’s advisor on global youth issues. That was an exciting opportunity for us to start a new office and to mainstream the economic, social and political inclusion of young people into decision-making processes through the State Department's work. It was a very entrepreneurial position as we were creating a new office and really starting from scratch. It was a wonderful learning and networking opportunity.
And then from Washington, I went to Lahore in Pakistan, where I served as the cultural affairs officer. However, unfortunately after a week, we were evacuated from Lahore for security reasons, and we ended up in the embassy in Islamabad. That was really heartbreaking for me as I was so excited to work in Lahore. It's where my grandparents are from since before the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, so I had envisioned this as a homecoming and discovery of my roots.
In the end though, I really liked working in Islamabad and we got to do incredibly interesting projects. One thing that was so surprising was that Pakistan is so full of young, really dynamic people who truly want to improve their country. Whatever about you read in the press, and despite all the security challenges, I really felt this very positive energy there and the situation on the ground was so different than I think what most people would expect.
Then because of all the turbulence that was happening with the consulate in Lahore, the Department decided not to keep us in Pakistan. So my husband and I spent half of the year working in Tallinn in Estonia. That was definitely a radical departure from Islamabad where I had gone everywhere in an armoured vehicle, and then suddenly to step off a plane and be able to walk around was quite shocking. A few weeks after our arrival in Tallinn, Russia's annexation of Crimea took place, and of course, Estonia borders Russia and has a significant Russian-speaking population, so suddenly it found itself on the frontlines of this international issue. It was an exciting time to be there, and I think we were able to help show our support for the NATO alliance and for Estonian sovereignty.
After Tallinn, we went to Washington DC to study Italian for five months before we came to Rome in 2015.
I think people appreciate more with recent events in Russia the condition diplomats work in and how one government decision can mean they have to uproot their families and lives very quickly. It would be interesting to hear more about how you decided on public diplomacy as your designated career path?
My joining of the State Department was kind of random. When I was in college I was in a program for Individualised Studies, which is this program that New York University (“NYU”) has that allows you to make up your own major. So initially I actually wanted to go into the music business and I did a few internships at record labels which were a lot of fun, but I realised I only liked the music part of it.
I finished my undergraduate degree a year early because of several advanced placement credits that I had taken in high school, so I felt the need to keep studying. I ended up staying at NYU and did a masters degree in communications. The program was technically called "Media Ecology," which is the study of the interplay between politics and culture and the media and economics; I also continued taking courses in European studies. Studying those subjects led to an interest in people, sociology and also world events.
It was at that time that I started the entrance exam for the Foreign Service. As I said, it was kind of a whim as someone had dared me to take the exam - so I can’t say it was something I prepared for my whole life. The exam process at the time involved a written exam and an oral exam that came later. While I was undertaking that exam process I went on to the London School of Economics where I studied for a masters in Human Rights and then I joined the State Department shortly after graduating there.
So while I didn’t have a traditional international relations background academically or even in terms of work experience, I think my various experiences from music to human rights made me very well-rounded and that has been useful. The Foreign Service does require a wide range of skills: critical thinking; being able to write well; being able to have an understanding of foreign cultures; and also being to understand why people think the way they do and what their motivations are.
I chose public diplomacy because I like to connect people and ideas to see how these connections can result in different outcomes. I think a lot of what I studied might have seemed random but actually really informed my thinking and gave me a lot of the skills I need as a public diplomacy officer.
I recall when we were talking about the State Department before that you mentioned that people often join the State Department after doing something else and most people don’t go in straight after college. What was your experience like of going straight into the State Department after college and being a very young Foreign Service Officer in a place where people were on average older?
As I said, I joined the State Department quite randomly and I had very little idea of what I was getting into; I don’t think I fully appreciated all the work that the State Department and the embassies do.
When you start you join an orientation class called “A-100.” My class had more than 70 people in it and the average age was 33, so I definitely felt a little bit intimidated and inexperienced. Everyone had very varied backgrounds; it was not the case that everyone had gone to the School of Foreign Service in Georgetown and prepared to be a diplomat. So that was reassuring. I also think being so young, I also had a sort of fearlessness and a willingness to go almost anywhere. I am sure on my first tour I made a lot of mistakes, but I think I also learned a lot very quickly. And I think one advantage of joining young is that I have a lot of time ahead of me. I can focus on work and positions that interest me and not just follow a career track that I am "supposed to be doing."
Now that you have been in the State Department twelve years it would be interesting to hear how you have found combining a career in diplomacy with a family. You often hear people commenting that it can be difficult to combine a career in foreign affairs and a family and it would be great about what the reality has been for you?
I think it is very hard. I am very lucky because I have an extremely supportive husband who is also a Foreign Service Officer, so we do the same job. That makes it easier in some ways and perhaps more challenging in others. For two years when I was in the Gambia before we got married, we had a long distance relationship between Africa and South America, which was hard. Since then though we have been assigned together every time - which is definitely not easy to arrange. Now that we have a young son it is not easy taking his needs into consideration, but we have made staying together as a family a priority, and there are perhaps other people who wouldn't make that decision based on needs that they have for their families or careers.
Both of us having such demanding careers also means we are very organised. We split everything 50:50, we split all of our chores and responsibilities and childcare and errands. It also means that I have to work very efficiently in the office so I can leave on time when I don't have to stay late or have a commitment in the evening.
It has also given me more of an understanding of who I am as a person -- understanding that I need time alone, for example, and trying to carve out time, even if it is just going to the grocery store for a few minutes by myself. That's been really important. And I try and unplug when I can and not bring home stress – which is still a work in progress. When I can, I try and not frequently check my email on the weekends. And when I go on leave I try and not check it at all.
I think on another level when you have a family it does bring into focus your priorities for your career and life. And when you are a diplomat you career is affected by, and very much affects, where you live, and you are away from your family and friends in the States. So for me to continue this job and for it still to be worthwhile it is very important for me to have meaning in my work, and that means I need to be making a difference to a degree in the lives of others. I have focused on that whether that is helping young girls with educational opportunities or working to combat human trafficking or integration which, are all things in which I find value.
And how responsive or sensitive has the State Department been as an employer to needs for families to stay together or are there other ways they have tried to be flexible?
There are definitely ways to approach it, but the issue is that every family is going to have some sort of needs. There are a lot of couples like us – they are called "tandem couples" – who are both Foreign Service Officers, so because of that the State Department can't accommodate every tandem couple because there are too many of them now. So it is a question of using your network and trying to get jobs together and word of mouth references and things like that. But for a lot of families, there may be a time when a Foreign Service Officer decides to go to a hardship posting in a war zone and they can't bring their families. In that case, the State Department tries to support the remaining family members by helping them find some means of support to either stay either in their previous posting or go back to the States. There is also a really nice ceremony every year where the children of families whose parents are serving in hardship posts get awards from the Secretary. But I think every family has its own dynamic. There are a lot of families whose children, for example, have special needs and need to go to special schools and so the family can only go on certain assignments because of the schools available. Everyone is juggling their own jigsaw puzzle of how to make this career work for them. There are a lot of resources that help with that, but it is still a challenge.
And finally, it would be great to know what advice you have for someone who wants to work in diplomacy or who is starting out on the first few years of their career as a diplomat?
- I think the main thing is to follow your interests and your passions. There are people who have risen very quickly by doing extremely difficult jobs one after the other but for me, I really don't think there is a one size fits all trajectory or a defined path to success. I think that's something you have to define for yourself. As I alluded to before, this is a career that sets the geographical parameters of your life. If you are not doing what you care about, whether that is trade negotiations or working in human resources or doing nuclear non-proliferation or all the other issues that we handle, then you are not going to be driven. So I think you need to find what you care about and pursue that.
- Obviously, flexibility is a very important skill; we are often working in difficult circumstances whether that is the political climate, or the environment, or the distance from home.
- Foreign languages are very important but the State Department will train you, you don't need to join with a proficiency in a language.
- Understand the historical context of the places you work. For me, there is nothing like being out in the field understanding why people make decisions and I think being attuned to that motivation is really important. So for me, I see this job as about connecting with people and that is what motivates me and that is the passion I have found in diplomacy.