Deja Gainey and Eric Kindelan were interns in the Bureau of Legislative Affairs (H) at the State Department during the Fall Semester of 2018. Deja Gainey is a senior political science major with a minor in global studies at William Peace University in Raleigh, NC. She is currently serving as the WPU Student Body President. Deja aspires to become a Foreign Service Officer for the Department of State. Eric Kindelan is a Spring 2019 graduate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He completed his bachelor’s degree in Political Science and the Peace, War, and Defense program at UNC-CH. Eric’s interest in foreign affairs goes back to high school in the Philadelphia metropolitan area.
In this article, we hope to explain our interest in foreign affairs, our decision to intern at the State Department, and our experiences in Foggy Bottom. Additionally, we provide brief reflections on the nature of U.S. diplomacy and how the internship has changed our perspectives on the subject.
Throughout this experience, we’ve made new lasting friendships, met amazing Civil Service and Foreign Service employees from multiple bureaus, and explored the world of diplomacy through interactive workshops, programs, and simulations.
First, we had different life paths that led us to seek internships at the State Department.
Deja: As a student in high school, I used to wonder what kind of opportunities were outside of my small rural town. Reading stories about the lives of Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) was fascinating and inspiring to me. During my freshman year of college, I reached out to the nearest Diplomat-in-Residence (DIR) and arranged a meeting with him. The DIR provided me with useful resources, including a copy of Inside a U.S. Embassy by the American Foreign Service Association and advice on preparing for an FSO career. After this meeting, I used my time in college to continue a variety of activities both on and off campus throughout the state of North Carolina. Some of these activities included internships in local government and with an economic development non-profit. While attending lectures related to foreign affairs, I had the opportunity to meet former and current State Department officials. These diplomats further inspired me to pursue my dream. When I became eligible to apply for a fall internship, I leapt at the chance. I applied for the Bureau of Legislative Affairs (H) because I had prior experience in the NC General Assembly and believed that it would be a great opportunity to learn about how the Department interacts with Congress. In September of 2018, I found myself standing in front of the Harry S. Truman building awaiting the start of intern orientation.
Eric: My decision to intern at the State Department was largely due to my experience in college. During my first semesters, I took great interest in some of my introductory Political Science and International Relations courses. These courses helped turn my nascent interest in politics into a more focused passion in foreign policy and international law. From talks with various professors to my own research, I found several opportunities to develop this passion into legitimate work experience. Many of my professors recommended applying for internships at various think-tanks in D.C. However, I wanted to be in Foggy Bottom and applied for their student internship, confident I could pursue both the job and online courses for the semester. I chose the Bureau of Legislative Affairs due to my interest in the intersection between domestic and foreign policy. My experience working for a House Foreign Affairs Committee member during the prior summer motivated me to apply for this position.
Both of us entered Foggy Bottom with many uncertain feelings. Not only was this anxiety due to the expected stresses of beginning a new internship, but also due to our perceptions of the State Department.
Eric: My first judgment was that the State Department was in a crisis of leadership and disorganization. News headlines surrounding Secretary Tillerson’s brief tenure led me to perceive that the Department was still attempting to restore its legitimacy after much internal struggle. Thankfully, my experience in the Bureau of Legislative Affairs taught me that this initial narrative was largely erroneous. Despite some staffing issues under the previous Secretary, the Department was full of motivated and inspiring FSOs and Civil Service employees who made the Harry S. Truman building an exciting place to work. My other assumption regarded the general importance of the institution. The course material at UNC on U.S. foreign policy, coupled with outside reading on the matter, led me to realize just how widespread and valuable the Department still was in the 21st century. Throughout college, I noticed that the role of the State Department was often misunderstood or downplayed among my peers. Many believed the Pentagon had subsumed the Department, or they had never heard of Foreign Service as a critical profession. However, my fascination for the Department’s work and an understanding (albeit a narrow one at the time) of its function led me to believe in its importance.
Deja: Similar to Eric’s expectations, I assumed that the Department was suffering from low morale and severely underfunded due to the actions of the last Secretary of State. From keeping up with the news and listening to the opinions of foreign policy experts, I believed that the entire organizational structure of the State Department was significantly damaged within the past two years due to hiring freezes, retirement of many senior career officials being replaced with political appointees, and employee policy changes. However, the esprit de corps of the dedicated Civil Service and Foreign Service employees remained high. I felt a sense of community during my time in the Bureau of Legislative Affairs because everyone was working together to achieve the common goal of coordinating the Department’s legislative strategy.
Our opinions on the nature of diplomacy changed during our internships. Our unique positions in H helped us comprehend the extent that internal politics affected U.S. foreign relations.
Eric: When Deja and I were not responding to urgent tasks, we worked on Congressional member biographies. It was our job to collect and organize speeches, tweets, and votes from members of relevant Congressional committees on issues of great importance. For example, the deteriorating conditions in Venezuela led several Committee members to demand answers and offer suggestions on the State Department’s strategy. We created or updated several biographies to prepare H colleagues and the Assistant Secretary for their communications with the Hill.
Additionally, I had previously believed that diplomacy was primarily a matter for the executive branch. I wrongly assumed that Senators would always vote to confirm Presidential appointees to diplomatic posts. Throughout our internship, we learned that a few members of Congress could determine whether or not these positions remained vacant. Specifically, the battle between the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Secretary Pompeo highlighted the importance of the legislative branch on diplomatic matters. The two figures sparred over confirming diplomats to key posts and ambassadorships, including ones in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. By the end of my time in H, I better understood the relative power of Congress in diplomacy and foreign affairs.
Throughout the internship, we were challenged to grow as better students and better leaders.
Deja: The tasks given to me by my supervisors challenged me to step out of my comfort zone and become a more critical thinker. After the internship, I was able to apply what I learned about foreign policy and congressional committees in many of my courses. One of the most important tasks of being an intern in the Bureau of Legislative Affairs was to create and update profiles on Members of Congress and congressional committees to understand their position on specific foreign policy issues. I also became a better writer through summarizing staff meeting notes and writing draft action reports for congressional advisors.
Although the whole internship experience was valuable, there were some special moments that made our time memorable.
Deja: Attending Senate Foreign Relations Committee ambassador confirmation hearings was a unique experience for me. Confirmation hearings are a special moment for the nominees and their families. It was also a great time to network with the nominees and learn about the process in general. I made the most out of my internship by attending workshops, lectures in the library, foreign policy classrooms, and diplomatic simulation activities. I had the opportunity to contribute to the Bureau staff through note-taking at meetings and congressional hearings, making new friends. The internship was a great time to network with other professionals in the Washington, D.C. area by attending Department sponsored workshops and events.
Towards the end of my time as an intern, I organized a “Lunch and Learn” with FSOs completing their posts in the Bureau of Legislative Affairs to gain a better understanding of securing employment with State and potential career paths within the federal government. The work of a foreign service officer is often unnoticed by the general public, yet so important to the preservation of our democracy.
Eric: Similar to Deja’s favorite memory, the highlight of my time in H was attending a meeting between the junior senator from Massachusetts and the newly appointed Special Representative for nuclear nonproliferation. The senator questioned him on topics related to the importance of nuclear agreements. During my last week at H, a colleague took me to this meeting where I tried my hardest to act like I belonged among the multiple accomplished people in the room. It was an incredible experience and one of the most instructive to see how the process of confirmation and closed-doors meetings work between the executive and legislative branches. Furthermore, the same H colleague allowed me to sit in on a call between State Department officials and senior congressional staff members. After taking notes on their discussion regarding Russian relations, I drafted a summary for the entirety of H.
To learn more about internships at the State Department, visit the careers.state.gov website and contact the Diplomat-in-Residence for your state. These are helpful resources when applying for internships and learning about the Department. And don’t hesitate to get in contact with a current State employee in a particular bureau or office of interest to you. The people we met at State were excited about their jobs, eager to share information, and great resources for questions about the internship process.