What does it take to be an ambassador?

Sometimes I reflect upon my life and consider what other paths I might have taken. Most recently, I have thought about what my life may have been like if I had focused my education on international studies.

The term “ambassador” goes back to the 14th century, but the idea of sending emissaries to other countries to help in assuring international cooperation goes as far back as we have had nations. Despite how some ambassadors get branded, they are not spies. The ambassador is an officially recognized person who represents the interests and the people of a country in another country. This person is officially recognized by his or her home country as well as the host country they are posted in.

I first became interested in the roles of ambassadors in July 1990 when I, and several other recent high school graduates, visited the Chilean embassy in Washington D.C. where we met with the Ambassador Mr. Patricio Silva Echeñique. (Thank you goes out to Barbara De Giorgis of the Cultural & Press Department at the Chilean embassy for finding his name for me.) I am certain that we talked about nothing of consequence, being a group of young adults, but I am not certain how it did not occur to me to study this in college; I went off to study computer science instead.

I suppose I did not study this because we barely talked about government in my school. We had one class in civics during one grade of high school and I hear it is even harder to get a class in civics these days. This is potentially problematic.

Even back in high school, I was interested in other languages, other cultures and how we all fit together in this greater world. My interest in the world outside of our medium sized California town made me different from most of my peers. I think that the teachers at our schools did not know how to deal with a blind person who was interested in more than just getting married and getting some mediocre job. I was interested in the United Nations. I was not aware that you could actually make a career out of this sort of interest. I had no idea how a person like myself would get involved in something like this.

While I do partially blame the teachers, it is not all their fault. Even after my trip to Washington D.C., I did not take the initiative and learn more. Perhaps I felt that my career choice of being a computer programmer was going to be more lucrative in the long run. I really cannot say. However the teachers at my high school somehow helped me get that trip to Washington D.C. where I met the ambassador. So I will give them that. I sometimes think about how different my life would be if I took the hint and got involved early on. Perhaps I could’ve made it to the United Nations.

This may sound like a story of regret. It is not. Even though I did not walk this path, and I did not eventually become a computer programmer either, I have met a lot of interesting people and done some interesting things. I would not be where I am today; I would be someplace completely different.

Let’s say I did take this path. Early in your career, it does not matter what you study, but getting a degree in political science or international relations is recommended, along with studying at least one foreign language. I feel that I would have gone for international relations, and since I already have some minimal experience with Spanish, I likely would have continued with that study.

I likely would have needed to attend another university for graduate school, but having a master’s degree in political science, public administration, or public policy would have really helped. I likely would have chosen public policy.

Aside from the different degrees that I would have required, it is highly recommended that you take on leadership roles as a student to demonstrate that you are interested in taking on such responsibility. I was not very involved as an early student. I had no interest in student government or many of the other opportunities provided by a university. I wanted my degree and then I wanted out. I realized too late that universities are more than just places to get degrees. They are places to build social and professional networks.

While acquiring a Ph.D. is not required, I may have considered it so that I could have taught at a university. This ties into what I would have needed to do after I received my college degrees. Work. It is recommended that you work in areas where you can use your knowledge of leadership and foreign relations by being a translator, teach political science or international relations, or even volunteer for the Peace Corps.

The previous steps are expected; get some college degrees, get some work experience, but then what? Well, the next step is to apply to the Foreign Service. This requires passing an exam which covers leadership, history, statistics and others, and is a written exam. Passing the exam is only the beginning. If you pass, you must then write six essays about what you would bring to the Foreign Service and provide references to people who can back up what you write about. Sounds like “trust but verify” doesn’t it? After that, there is an oral assessment. The oral assessment involves an hour long interview, group negotiation and case management assessments which all have to be done the same day and within a given time. Just thinking about doing all of this in Washington D.C., probably in the summer, makes me uncomfortable.

If you pass through that intense gauntlet, then all you have to do is pass a medical exam and a security screening. If all of that goes well, then you’re in!

Well, not quite. Now, you need to look for a job at the State Department. Hey, you managed to keep your previous job while going through all of this, right? All this assessing, traveling, attending supplemental lectures and conferences costs you money, so I sure would have done my best to stay employed to pay for it all.

In this hypothetical world, I would be starting over again, at the bottom. I would need to work my way up, make enough of a splash to get noticed and to prove that I was someone worth promoting. After all that work, stress, and moving around the country, becoming an ambassador may come down to one final thing…luck. No matter how hard you work, check all the boxes and stand out in all the best ways you can, you eventually are  competing against your fellows for a limited number of political appointments.

After doing the research for this article, I better understand what Pamela Harriman, U.S. Ambassador to France 1993-1997, meant about being an ambassador not being for anyone who wasn’t independently wealthy. However she was not completely clear on her reasons. In her mind, being ambassador was about being able to dole out lavish gifts and parties to express the largess and power of the United States. Really though, where being wealthy really helps an ambassador is being able to jump through all the required hoops without having to worry about where your next meal is coming from or where you are going to live next winter. Mrs. Harriman would not understand having to live month to month because she made her money the old fashioned way…she married into it!

As schools focus more of their curriculum on career preparedness, we ought not forget careers in the areas of public administration, policy, and international relations. Civics education is as vital to our future as STEM.