2006 PFIG Recipient Rebecca Elliot

Career Administrator

Rebecca Elliot
College of Arts & Sciences
Anthropology
2007 Graduation Year

Internship: Foreign Service Institute, US Department of State in in Arlington, VA.

Notes on the first week

I learn so much every single day. That’s my most salient impression after interning for two weeks with the US State Department. Every day, from 8:15 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon, I’m gathering information on topics that I find profoundly fascinating — Africa, US diplomacy, and development.

I’m working in the Africa Area Studies division at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, VA. The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) is the training arm of the State Department — where Foreign Service officers (FSOs) go to take language classes, classes about the region where they’ll be deployed, and classes that equip them with skill sets for various specializations. In Africa Area Studies, we provide classes and materials that will prepare FSOs who are going to be working in sub-Saharan Africa. In my time here so far, we’ve provided classes on Portugal and Africa, traditional leadership, and gender and development. We’ve shown films and hosted a guest speaker from the Portuguese Embassy and a professor from American University.

As an intern here, I get to attend not only the Africa-related classes, but also the classes provided by the other professional and area studies divisions. My supervisor, Stephen Brundage, an FSO himself for many years, encourages me to take advantage of these classes, as well as seminars at the main State Department facility downtown and at other think tanks around Washington. Last week, I attended a book talk with Michael Mandelbaum, author of The Case for Goliath, and tomorrow I am going to a presentation about improving impact evaluation for development projects at the Institute for International Economics. FSI also has a library choc-full of international publications and language materials, and I’ve just undertaken a self-study of French. I don’t speak a word of French right now, so we’ll see how it goes.

During my first week here, I spent the majority of my time helping Mr. Brundage put together a presentation that he’ll be giving to military personnel in Florida next week. In the course of making charts and slides for this presentation, I learned a tremendous amount about energy security, resource dependency, and the fuel trade in Africa. These are hot issues these days, making the material even more interesting for its pertinence to current US-Africa relations. This also afforded me the opportunity to familiarize myself with databases provided by the Economic Intelligence Unit, the World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund. In just one week, I believe my skills with finding, analyzing, and displaying economic data improved significantly.

Right now, I’m working on updating our briefing book on Kenya that the US ambassador to Kenya can use as a reference. In the weeks ahead, I’ll be preparing a two-week intensive course on Africa. I’m excited about the work I’m doing and have found it rewarding. And I’m just two weeks in.

Midway

We’ve just finished our two-week intensive seminars here at the Foreign Service Institute. The campus has been abuzz with an influx of students, some of whom are Foreign Service Officers, while others come to us from the FBI, Department of Defense, Department of Commerce, and various other agencies. For the past two weeks, from nine in the morning until five in the afternoon, they have been learning about the region of the world to which they’ll be posted or that pertains to the work they do domestically. I’ve been helping with the Sub-Saharan Africa Area Studies seminar—escorting guest speakers, preparing reading material, addressing student needs and concerns and, best of all, sitting in on each and every class. This has exposed me to the unique wisdom and perspectives of professors, ambassadors, foreign diplomats, and civil servants.

Needless to say, I learned a wealth of new things about sub-Saharan Africa. What was most striking to me was the kind of information I was getting — it was more practical and objective-related than the topics of discussion in a typical college class. In my African history classes at U.Va., we discuss themes and trends, ending our analyses at a few years back. In these classes, the emphasis is on what is going on, on the ground, right now. This makes sense, since the State Department wants to equip its personnel with the most up-to-date information. Each presentation was very detailed, and the students asked specific questions about the conditions in their countries of interest. The topics over the course of the two weeks included: the demanding geography of Africa, terrorism, HIV/AIDS, Islam and Christianity, ethnicity, security issues, trade relations, African art, and others. We took field trips to the Islamic Center downtown and to the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.

During the second week of the class, Mr. Brundage arranged a somewhat unexpected visit from Ambassador Edward Perkins, who is in DC promoting his book Mr. Ambassador: Warrior for Peace. He has served in all over the world, including several posts in Africa, and was the US Ambassador to the United Nations and the US Representative in the UN Security Council. It was a very special opportunity to hear about his experiences abroad and the advice he has to offer FSOs.

One of the best results of my participation in this two-week seminar was that everything I learned served to contextualize further my own experiences studying abroad in South Africa last fall. The classes placed my impressions in a historical, political, economic, and cultural context that nothing I had previously read or heard had revealed to me. I am seeking to embellish this further with the rest of my time here, during which I will be occupied primarily with writing a self-study guide for southern Africa.

Final Reflections

Today is my last day at the Foreign Service Institute. My final assignment is to collect some information about Senegal, specifically the Islamic brotherhoods, the Casamance conflict, and the Senegalese diaspora. This will all go into a folder that will be given to an officer who does diplomatic security work at our embassy in Senegal. In pulling articles for him, I’ve also learned about these topics; I’ve even thought of a potential paper topic for next school year.

Yesterday, I finished “my project,” a self-study guide on Southern Africa. These guides are intended for people who can’t take the courses here, but would like information on the region in which they’ll be working. They are designed to be informative and helpful, while remaining concise. This was a challenge because there is so much to know and to say about Southern Africa, but I wanted to keep the writing tight and to-the-point. Mr. Brundage allowed me to identify the important topics, themes, personalities, and programs to include — what did I think people should know about Southern Africa?

The self-study guide required a considerable amount of research and went through numerous revisions. What I ended up with was a 40-page document that details issues like soil quality, regional organization, HIV/AIDS, US security assistance, colonial history, democratization, corruption, labor migration, and much more. There is also a page for each of the 10 countries in Southern Africa that provides some key economic data, plus individual background on each country’s liberation struggle, politics since independence, some enduring issues, and the nature of US bilateral relations.

On Wednesday, I met with Mr. Brundage to reflect on my experiences this summer and to talk about my future plans. He answered a few questions I had about the Foreign Service and told me about other careers in foreign affairs. I plan to take the Foreign Service Exam next year, just to see how I do.

It’s hard to come up with some sort of concluding remarks about my summer. I feel so fortunate to have had meaningful and stimulating work to do every day I was here. I would recommend State Department internships to all students interested in foreign relations. I would also recommend Washington, DC. Though I grew up here, being part of the federal government working-world has exposed me to a unique side of the city’s culture. People say that DC shuts down at night, that it’s a happy hour town that goes to bed or back to the suburbs. But I find it’s actually a city that never sleeps—because it’s always working.