by June Carter Perry
What is a Diplomat in Residence in 2020?
In order to reach out to potential future Foreign Service Officers (FSOs), the Department of State places experienced officers at colleges and universities in sixteen regions of the United States. The FSOs assigned as Diplomats in Residence (DIRs) offer guidance and advice on careers, internships and fellowships to students and professionals in the communities they serve.
Although one might compare their roles to those of recruiters for corporations or universities, in fact, the DIR’s responsibilities are much broader. Based on my position as Diplomat in Residence at Howard University 2001-2002, the DIR is a counselor, a teacher, a mentor and sometimes a parent.
I was most fortunate to work under the direction of Ambassador Ruth A. Davis, the Director General of the entire diplomatic corps, civilian and officer alike. The Secretary of State at the time was General Colin Powell, a strong proponent of improving human resources of the State Department. One could not have asked for a more supportive hierarchy dedicated to expanding the ethnic and regional talent pool from which the Department would draw.
My reflections on the DIR program address the methods developed to broaden the composition of the Foreign Service Officer corps, the Howard University experience and a comparison of the DIR tool kit of the past and that of the present.
Years of Progress and Regress
In the early 2000’s, there was a sense of hope that the Department of State would move from the historically “pale male Yale” mold of the FSO to one more reflective of the United States as a multi-cultural nation. Unfortunately, as The New York Times (June 26, 2020) headlined on its opinion page: “Closed Doors at the State Department,” that has not happened. The writer, former diplomat Chris Richardson concludes: “The well of diversity is the strength of the United States, and it must be more so moving forward….but the current system will not do.”
One year after the Rogers Act of 1924 formally establishing the Foreign Service (revised in 1980) as we know it, Clifton Wharton became the first African American Foreign Service Officer. It took another 20 years to admit another. The delay in admitting minorities paralleled the reluctance to admit and promote women, leading to the Alison Palmer Lawsuit against the Department on the unfair treatment of women in assignments and promotions. African American officers filed a suit in 1986 against racial prejudice by the Department, practices that discouraged and disadvantaged Black officers.
Eventually, it seemed there might be light at the end of the tunnel when Ambassador Edward J. Perkins was named Director General in 1989 following his tour as the first Black American ambassador to South Africa. Under Ambassador Perkins’ leadership, the Foreign Affairs Fellowship Program came to fruition. In 1989, as a member of Ambassador Jerry Bremer’s task force on the Foreign Service, I proposed that the Department develop a graduate fellowship for minority officers, a concept based on my knowledge of a similar program utilized by Peace Corps when I was an office director at that institution prior to joining the State Department. Collaboration between Ambassador Perkins and Dr. John Hope, former President of the Wilson Foundation in Princeton, resulted in the Foreign Affairs Fellowship Program that the Foundation administered through 2016. Later named for distinguished Ambassador Thomas Pickering, the program is now administered by Howard University’s Bunche Center for International Affairs.
A Day (and some nights) as a Diplomat in Residence
Following completion of the Department’s Senior Seminar, an interagency executive officer year-long training program at the Foreign Service Institute, I was assigned to the DIR position at Howard University in 2001and situated in the Bunche International Affairs Center on campus. Prior to the Seminar, I had been Deputy Chief of Mission and/or Charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassies in the Central African Republic and in Madagascar as well as special assistant to the late Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger. As is the case with most DIRs, I had experience in several countries as well as in Washington and had interacted with the Hill, the White House and various State bureaus including human resources and training over 18 years.
It is essential, in my opinion, that Diplomats in Residence have a wide range of contacts with colleagues throughout the federal government as well as knowledge of the personnel and administrative functions in order to fully and honestly advise students of the objectives and functions of the diplomatic corps. The DIR has the somewhat unpleasant task of gently bringing students down to earth, in this case, sometimes being a worker bee in a massive bureaucracy.
Once settled in a cubicle at the Bunche Center headed by former Ambassador Horace Dawson, I found myself without a secretary to help locate supplies, acquaint me fully with the IT system of the university and identify potential students with an interest in international affairs. Although the Center issued an announcement upon my arrival, I made it my mission to walk to the Administration building and establish relationships with the team there, head to the Blackburn Student Center where special events occurred on a regular basis, befriend its very capable director and embark on my outreach strategy through interviews on WHUR, the school’s well-known radio station as well as meet with reporters of the “Hilltop” campus newspaper.
Fortunately, my outreach strategy worked and students began to drop by the Bunche Center to see me. My methodology included making a log of every visitor, his/her major, and contact information. There was encouraging interest from 8:30 a.m. until at least 6:00 p.m. and, often later into the evening. After determining students’ level of interest and basic preparation in their fields, I began to assess their potential for taking the Foreign Service Exam. With a focus on writing and targeted reading, we began a series of individually scheduled meetings as well as panel discussions on international issues and scenarios of negotiations as well as individual presentations on issues such as economic and political conditions in specific countries. Students’ pre-college education varied from those who were the first in their families to attend an institution of higher learning to “legacy” students from middle and upper income backgrounds. With such a spectrum of preparation levels, I often called on my own previous university teaching background to work with each young person to evaluate and strengthen their skill levels. However, I began with establishing our mutual interests. For example, if a student were from Texas, I would talk about my time visiting there at my grandparents’ home. The ties were not always geographic. Music, travel and, in some cases, a shared foreign language broke the ice and laid the foundation for a fruitful path to meet the challenge first of taking the FS exam and eventually to applying for the Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship–a prize which would cover graduate studies to be followed by a four- or five-year commitment to serve as a diplomat. Many of my advisees were also attracted to the internships offered at the State Department and abroad at our embassies.
In addition to my consultations at Howard, I made evening presentations at Georgetown University and met with students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels from other colleges such as Catholic University and Morgan State University in the region. Along with those consultations, I often met with faculty and student center staff to learn what resources they possessed and the potential for our collaboration.
The Blackburn Center became a perfect venue for the students’ own presentations and discussions. In those situations, the students took the lead after our initial review of the issues they wished to highlight and my recommendations of source materials to read and consider what documents they themselves might prepare for distribution to their colleagues. The Howard student newspaper, “Hilltop”, regularly covered such sessions, which helped develop the students’ confidence. They could read about themselves and their ideas in print and in a journal their peers would see. Director General Ruth Davis also gave an “exclusive” to the “Hilltop” in her State Department office. This was a treat for the student reporters who accompanied me to Ambassador Davis’ impressive suite and provided them an inside look at the environment in which officers worked when on assignment in Washington.
Exposure to the real world of diplomacy was a theme I tried to continue throughout my tour as DIR. Foreign visitors, such as the Deputy Foreign Minister of Madagascar, one of my interlocutors during my time in that country, came to the Bunche Center and met several of the students interested in international affairs. Such occasions added to students’ interest and were encouraging elements as they progressed on their own road to diplomatic careers.
Developing the Tools of Diplomacy and Test Taking: The Hard Part
To develop a real grasp of how the Foreign Service exam was developed, we were able to send a Howard University professor and a seasoned State Department Human Resources officer to Iowa to meet with the contractors who designed the exam at that time. This was an especially informative trip for the Howard instructor, who returned and developed an exam handbook.
I was most grateful to Howard University President H. Patrick Swygert for his support in the many “extra” endeavors I proposed in pursuit of developing a superb cadre of students to take the exam, to apply for internships, and to become real leaders in their cohort. For many students, absorbing the handbook and my no-doubt-noisome-requisite that they read the Economist and the New York Times ad nauseum, boredom had to set in. However, my hat was off to them: no matter what additional reading, discussion, negotiation or debate they were asked to undertake, they did it.
When the time came to take the Foreign Service Exam, five Howard University students passed–the highest number on any Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) campus. The students became stars. Of course, they were already stars but just had not burst forth quite yet. President Swygert covered the press with praise for his young protegees as did Ambassador Dawson with news of the students’ performance.
Secretary of State Colin Powell graciously held a reception on the Seventh Floor of the State Department for the famous five as well as their many colleagues who had secured internships in the Department or abroad. The glow lasted quite a while and served as a major incentive for the students to carry on and seek further achievements. Word of their success brought more students into my cubicle, even some who had completed their undergraduate work but wanted to know how they, too, might become part of cadre of international professionals. I never turned anyone away because they all had something to offer the world, maybe not as FSOs but as individuals who could make a positive contribution wherever they might land.
However, despite the glory and glow of the successful five, the days of hard work were not over. Those students who had demonstrated their mastery of drafting, analyzing and reaching unassailable conclusions on the exam still faced the application process for the Pickering Fellowship. (NB: Since that time, Pickering semifinalists must undergo another battery of written and oral exams before acceptance for the Fellowship.) The successful students drafted and redrafted their applications and demonstrated a deep commitment to promoting U.S. foreign policy abroad.
My role as DIR at this point was to both assist the applicants and to also allow others beyond the campus walls to participate in seminars with the students at the Bunche Center. In that regard, news of our program had reached far beyond the Washington area. With the cooperation of the Center, we held seminars involving international affairs directors from other institutions, military personnel who were interested in foreign affairs and even a U.S. citizen in Paris who wished to attend our seminar on diplomacy. Colleagues from the Department agreed to serve on a panel of experts to discuss the role of the Civil Service in foreign affairs. One of my Senior Seminar colleagues participated in an evening program developed in conjunction with the university’s business school to discuss the importance of U.S. cooperation with allies on a variety of issues. One of the most rewarding exchanges was the agreement of the U.S. Embassy in London to receive a group of Howard University international affairs and business students for a visit there. These are just highlights of the range of activities that helped prepare dedicated students to pursue a Foreign Service Career.
Developing the Rangel Program
Towards the end of my tour, State Department Human Resources Officer T.J. Jefferson and I drafted the format for a new program, the Rangel Program. Representative Charles Rangel of New York wished to encourage young people across the country to pursue diplomatic careers. T.J. and I worked out of the Bunche Center and met regularly with Mr. Rangel’s staff on the Hill to formulate a program similar to the Pickering, one that would include graduate students as well. In the summer of 2001, we saw our first cohort of Rangel Fellows who had gone through much of the same process as the Pickering Fellows. Today, that program is also administered by the Bunche Center.
I am proud that the original group of advisees I mentored at the Center has gone on to accomplish great things. Some have left the State Department but others have become DIRs themselves, one at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University. Another is an officer in the American Embassy in China and one has completed several tours, the last as Embassy Public Affairs Officer in Angola. I have followed the ones mentioned above but know there are many more who later pursued Foreign Service careers.
Today’s DIRs, in sixteen regions covering the United States, have extensive technological and virtual tools we lacked in the early 2000’s. They have a much greater ability to reach across America, even during this challenging time, to ensure that the United States is represented in all its regional and cultural richness to international partners. Their ability to usher students through to fellowship programs and diplomatic service will depend, however, on Congressional funding. If the Department and representatives of the nation are serious about full representation of a multicultural America, increased resources and commitment are necessary to ensure we have many more “famous fives” in embassies around the world.
Ambassador June Carter Perry (ret), former U.S. envoy to Lesotho and Sierra Leone, served five years in domestic federal agencies and Peace Corps headquarters then 26 years at State, where she received the President’s Meritorious Award in Advancing Foreign Policy and the Diplomat of the Year Award. A University of Chicago graduate, she was the Cyrus Vance Visiting Professor in International Relations at Mount Holyoke College, Lecturer in History at the University of Maryland (College Park), and History Instructor at North Carolina A&T University. Past President of the Senior Seminar Alumni Association and the Thursday Luncheon Group, she has published in the Washington Post, the Washington Afro-American and the Chicago Daily News. She is currently writing a book on the influence of Western Civilization in the browning of America.