2012 PFIG Recipient Veronica Elkins
College of Arts & Sciences
Modern Studies (English Literature) and French Major
2013 Graduation Year
Internship: US Department of State/US Embassy
Notes on the first week
My first week of work at the US Embassy in Paris was a hectic whirlwind of firm handshakes, unfamiliar acronyms and bewilderingly rapid transitions from English to French and back again. Settling into my new role as an intern for the American Citizen Services branch was a tiring experience that left me drained at the end of every long day, but it was also an extremely rewarding one that has made me excited and eager for the weeks ahead.
American Citizen Services (ACS) is a branch of the Embassy's Consular Section, but before showing up for work the first day, I really had very little idea what that meant. Something to do with passports maybe, but what else?
A lot of what ACS does is, in fact, to do with passports-- issuing emergency ones for tourists whose passports have been lost or stolen, as well as administering regular applications and renewals for Americans living in France-- but it does much more apart from that. Everything from confirming and documenting the citizenship of Americans born abroad, to notarial services, to overseas voter outreach-- if it has to do with helping Americans who are traveling or living in France, ACS probably takes care of it. As someone who loves to travel, witnessing firsthand all of the assistance the State Department provides to Americans when they are out of the country is very reassuring.
Most of my first week was spent learning more about the branch and the procedures and guidelines that it follows in order to best serve Americans. This process involved observing the consular officers and local French employees at work. At first, I felt a little awkward about hanging over their shoulders, pestering them with questions about the many and various regulations regarding citizenship and passport issuance, but they were all very welcoming and graciously slackened their work pace in order to help me learn the ropes. In addition to teaching more about the section, observing my new co-workers also gave me the opportunity to witness some pretty powerful moments: the looks of grateful relief that spread across the faces of crime victims when handed their newly printed emergency passport, the joy of young couples as their chubby-faced babies officially became American citizens... these moments helped me understand the direct impact that the Consulate's work has on individuals' lives.
During my first week, I also learned how to process passport applications, something that I will help do for the duration of my internship. In the weeks ahead, I will also start working on several special projects, including participating in overseas voter outreach for the upcoming election and helping make the Consulate's web page more streamlined and user-friendly. I'm excited for these projects because they offer the opportunity to find creative solutions to the problems that inherently arise when communicating with a public as large as the one the Consulate serves... hopefully I'll be able to come up with some good ideas!
I didn't take me very long to fall into a comfortable rhythm at work. In the mornings, I would work with another intern on a variety of special projects, such as voter outreach, editing cables to be sent to Washington, and researching Department policy. In the afternoons, I helped out with the standard mechanics of passport issuance-- entering the data for applications submitted in person or by mail and checking the information on already printed passports before mailing them to their new owners. However, just as this general schedule was beginning to seem familiar and even routine, it was completely upended.
Midway through my internship, our office was suddenly short-staffed, due to a combination of people going on scheduled vacation leave and emergency absences. As a relative newcomer, I didn't understand how the office could possibly function given the fairly significant staff shortage. If the woman who normally printed emergency passports was on vacation, how could we possibly issue any as long as she was away?
I was in awe of how quickly my coworkers adapted, taking over jobs they weren't normally responsible for with such ease and rapidity that an outsider would not have guessed that the office was functioning with anything less than a full staff. Their flexibility was a model for me when I was pulled away from my normal duties and asked to take on new responsibilities.
The most exciting of these was working at the intake window, something I had done once during training at the beginning of my internship, but never again since. Intake is the first step when people come to the Embassy for passport services. At the window, it was my job to take people's application materials, make sure everything was in order, and prepare them for review by one of the consular officers. At first, I felt unbelievably unprepared for the task at hand. Whereas all the work I had done previously could be done at my own speed, work at the window was fast-paced due to the pressure to minimize the amount of time clients had to spend in the waiting room. Additionally, being constantly observed while I worked made me very nervous; if I messed up or didn't know the answer to a question, the client was right there to see my incompetence. As time went on, however, I grew more confident and comfortable working at the window and didn't have to ask quite so many questions of my ever patient coworkers. I grew to love doing intake for the very same reasons that I once feared it: the fast pace began to seem exhilarating and the the direct interaction with the public enjoyable and rewarding.
I like to think that I've always been a relatively flexible person, but working in the American Citizen Services office has definitely helped me become more so. Because the office provides indispensable services to Americans abroad, letting productivity drop because of staff shortages simply isn't an option. In public service, the show really must go on and watching and helping my office rise to the occasion has inspired me to always be as flexible as possible, both in my personal and professional life.
It has now been several weeks since I finished my internship and said goodbye to my coworkers and to Paris. I've quickly and easily slipped back into the familiar routine of being a student at UVA, but my experience working at the Embassy has never been far from my mind.
I started the internship with considerable trepidation, unsure of what would be expected of me and fearful that the seasoned diplomats and French employees would be impatient with my uncertainty and inexperience. Far from impatient, my coworkers quickly welcomed me into the fold, and I grew to love the cooperative, if hectic, environment of the office. Of all that I learned this summer, I believe that the ability to work cooperatively with others is perhaps the most important. Picking up on the cues of my coworkers, I learned the importance of both personal responsibility to do things well and in a timely manner and the willingness to pitch in beyond normal expectations when the office's communal workload demands it. In my desire to emulate their example, I surprised myself with what I could accomplish, whether it was jumping in to help at the intake window or working with another intern to make two instructional videos in one week. My newly acquired knowledge of how to contribute to such an esprit d'équipe(team spirit) will help me in whatever professional environment lies in my future.
Esprit d'équipe is particularly important in the realm of public service, where a failure to work collaboratively is translated into a failure to the public. Working in ACS this summer, I found this knowledge to be an incredible motivator. Even the dullest work seemed manageable and indeed, important, because I knew that it was helping the government serve Americans abroad as it should. My newfound appreciation for meaningful work has persuaded me that a career in public service is the right path for me.
I am incredibly thankful to Parents Fund Internship Grant for making this wonderful experience at the Embassy possible. The Fund's generous financial assistance allowed me to experience the excitement and challenges of working in public service firsthand and thus, facilitated the professional growth and personal insight that the internship afforded me.