Cultural Affairs Officer | U.S. Embassy, Bolivia
Education: BA in Social Work and African American Studies at Syracuse University | M.S.W (Master of Science in Social Work) at Columbia University | MA in International Relations and Affairs and MPA in Public Administration at Syracuse University
Previously worked at: US Department of State
Find Lia Online: LinkedIn
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Exclusive Interview with Aisha Babalakin on December 23, 2016
When did you first realise that you wanted a career in the US Foreign Service?
It was kind of a happy accident. I studied African American Studies and Social Work in College, thinking that I wanted to be a social worker in the United States and work domestically. However, I come from a family that travels extensively; my grandfather was a contractor for USAID (United States Agency for International Development), and so my mother and her siblings had grown up in Indonesia, Brazil, and other parts of the world. When my grandfather retired, he worked as a Professor and also opened up a travel agency with my grandmother. I grew up on my grandparent’s knees, as they managed the travel agency, meeting people from all over the world, I already had the international relations bug, and I an eye towards the world beyond the United States.
What led me to the State Department specifically was a graduate fellowship called the Thomas R. Pickering Fellowship program. I had finished my graduate degree at Columbia in Social Work, and still didn’t feel like I had found my niche. I knew that I wanted to help people, but I didn’t think that working on the micro – level was a good fit for me. I felt that I would need to return to school to broaden my academic preparation and background. I was looking for a way to do that without taking out a million loans, that would also enable my parents to financially support my younger sisters. As the eldest child, I always felt like the second mum and I didn’t want to take away any opportunities or resources from them; especially since I had already done my undergraduate and masters degrees. My parents had supported me the best they could, and now it was my sister’s’ turn. If I wanted more for me, I would have to find my own way.
I found the Pickering Fellowship, applied for it, and was lucky enough to become a beneficiary. I went back to school and got dual Masters Degrees in Public Administration and International Relations. After graduation, I entered the Foreign Service. The Pickering Fellowship is an amazing opportunity for women of colour and people of colour in general. The Pickering Fellowship was created to support non-traditional and under-represented groups find their way into the foreign service with the added benefit of having your graduate degree paid for.
You’ve worked as a Foreign Service Officer for over twelve years. Where were you first stationed?
One of the elements of the Pickering Fellowship is that you serve in an embassy overseas for a summer, and you serve in the State Department for another summer, so you get a sense of what a foreign service officer does over the course of the two internships. These experiences give you a bird’s eye view of the Department as a whole, so when you come in as an officer, you’ll have some background to help you be a bit more strategic in the choices that you make over the course of your career. I interned overseas in the public affairs section of the Embassy in Santiago, Chile, and in the Department, I interned in the Operations Centre on the Crisis Management side. Both were amazing experiences. When I went to Graduate School under the Pickering program, I had the opportunity to do a third internship in the embassy in Madrid, Spain – also in the Public Affairs Section.
The internships factored heavily in my decision to become a Public Affairs Officer within the Foreign Service. I initially thought I wanted to do policy work because I’m a policy wonk, but I have more of a public diplomacy personality. For me, public diplomacy was the best fit because it requires both strong policy acumen and the ability to conduct meaningful outreach and create real people – to – people connections. I felt that public diplomacy was that perfect intersection between both.
Did the Foreign Service provide language services for you?
Yes, they do. Part of the service component is that you have to be able to speak the host country’s language, especially if you’re a public affairs officer. You can’t connect with people if you do not speak their language. I came in already with some Spanish and French, and have picked up Arabic and some Portuguese since then. I’ve been able to refresh and reinforce my existing Spanish language skills, which led me to my current job in Bolivia, where you have to speak Spanish to effectively do your job since the average Bolivian doesn’t speak much English. The beauty of a career in the Foreign Service is that you don’t have to be pigeon-holed into one career path. I came into the Foreign Service as a generalist – which means that I can work in any of the five different career paths (Public Diplomacy, Consular, Management, Economic, Political). Public diplomacy is my sweet spot because it is what I’ve enjoyed doing most, but I’ve worked as a political officer, an economic officer, done consular work, and I’ve also been a management officer. During my career, I’ve gotten a taste of what all of my colleagues do, which I think makes me a better colleague to them because I understand their constraints and intimately understand the work they do.
I can tell that flexibility is an important skill to have in a career in the Foreign Service. Could you tell us more of these skills?
Flexibility is very important because this career can be demanding. Things aren’t always stable, things change all the time, and it’s very fluid. If you’re uncomfortable in that kind of environment, then you should think twice about joining the Foreign Service. If you’re able to be adaptable and flexible, it should be a little easier
You also need strength of character, and to be comfortable in your own skin. You need to know what your beliefs and values are. Policies change as administrations change making it even more important that, you understand where your lines are. If you feel comfortable promoting certain policies, that’s great. If you don’t feel comfortable promoting them, that’s okay too. The bottom line is you need to know yourself and have faith and confidence in your own value system coupled with an awareness of where your values align with foreign policy goals or not.
To be successful in this career, you need to be a good communicator. The Foreign Service requires strong skills in written and oral communication. Communication is key and a critical part of the work we do.
Also, fortitude and inner strength are essential. This job requires a lot of you, professionally and personally, so it is incumbent upon you to know when and where to draw the line. I am a huge proponent of work-life balance. By that I mean, I put my all into my work and I give it 100%, so that when I leave my job at the end of the day, I can put my all into my family and myself, without being preoccupied about work.
How long have you lived in Bolivia?
I’ve lived here for four months, and it’s a 2-year position.
Describe a typical day as Cultural Affairs Officer
No two days are alike, and I enjoy this because I’m not a routine person.
A typical day could include meeting with a group of students who are interested in pursuing studies in the United States, or they want to learn English, or they want to learn about exchange opportunities. Or, I could be meeting with some of our alumni who want to compete for a grant and talk to them about the different options available.
Or I might go out and give a talk on any number of subjects, including US Elections, Black History Month, immigration policy, women’s rights, environment and climate change initiatives, or whatever topic the group is interested in hearing about. For example, for our election night event, I spoke about previous female presidential candidates. For some, there’s no awareness that there were many women who sought to become President of the United States before Hillary Clinton.
I will review grants that we have given to non-profit organisations, educational institutions, or other organisations that work in areas we support and that relate to mission goals, e.g. expansion of educational opportunities.
I’ll also participate in conferences that relate to English – language instruction. For example, we recently hosted a conference about two weeks ago for English-language teachers that are working with underprivileged youth; we give scholarships to these young people so they can afford to take English classes. This opens doors and opportunities for them that they otherwise couldn’t pursue due to financial constraints. At the conference, I had the opportunity to meet with those students, the teachers, and their parents.
We also give book donations to centres, schools, libraries, and other institutions that want English language material but cannot afford to buy it on their own.
These are some of the things that I did last week. Thankfully, no two weeks are alike.
Do you have any advice or recommendations for young women – particularly women of colour – who would like to pursue a similar career?
I think this is a wonderful career – which is why I’ve stayed in it for so long. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that there were times when I considered what else was out there for me. This is all I’ve done since graduate school and I think it’s typical to go through that questioning phase. There is a richness in this type of work, especially in cultural affairs work, which is why I have stayed this long.
If you are the type that feels comfortable being independent and separate from your friends and family and overseas based, then this might be the right fit for you. The advice that I would give is that you should spend some time doing some introspection, and figuring out what it is that you really want out of life.
For single women, this career can be a bit challenging, depending on where in the world you are posted. It can be difficult to create an appropriate work – life balance for yourself, but it is not impossible.
There’s so much diversity within this career field that you never have to feel trapped or pigeon-holed. You get to travel frequently and as a result, you get to see something new every couple of years, which I really like.
Apart from the Pickering Fellowship, are there any other fellowships or scholarships for people of colour and other minority groups who want to pursue a career in foreign policy?
Until this year, I was on the Board of the Pickering, Rangel and Payne Fellowship Association (PRFA) in a variety of roles, including President. Its members include Pickering Fellows, Rangel Fellows, and a new fellowship called the Donald M Payne International Development Fellowship which was created by USAID, and modelled after the Pickering program. There are also the Presidential Management Fellowships and the Boren Fellowship.
I’m also on the board of an organisation called the Global Access Pipeline (GAP). It’s a pipeline program that grooms young women and people of colour to see themselves in the international and foreign policy arena. There are exchange programs, language programs, and opportunities to get involved with all sorts of projects.
There’s also the International Career Advancement Program (ICAP). It’s more for mid-career professionals, but they do offer mentorship opportunities for high school and university students. I’m an alumnus as well, and a member of the 2015 cohort.
These are fantastic programs, and have a wealth of resources specifically for women, people of colour, religious minorities, LGBTQ+, etc., to help bring them into the international relations arena, not only as government employees, but also as consultants, lobbyists, Hill staffers, presidential appointees, academics, policy advocates, etc. – a wide variety of people and positions.
I’m happy to be a resource if anyone wants to contact me and ask questions or get a referral to any of these organisations. They can contact me via LinkedIn, and I will follow up with them directly.
Final point: We need more women and women of colour specifically to enter this career field. We need you, “pale, male, Yale” isn’t the way of the world anymore, and it certainly isn’t reflective of the United States today. We need to hear more of those historically marginalised voices and learn from and utilise more those experiences.