2013 PFIG Recipient Zachary Blackburn

Career Administrator

Zachary Balckburn
College of Arts & Sciences
Economics and Foreign Affairs Major
2014 Graduation Year

Internship: US Department of State Economic & Political Section Riga, Latvia

Notes on the first week

My first week in Riga, Latvia has been a whirlwind of new names, procedures, languages, and acronyms. The first day at post was jam-packed; I had a security briefing, an instruction session on using both the classified and unclassified computer systems, and lots of reading to do to get up to speed on the economic and political climate in the country. I started on a Friday, as most State Department employees do in order to give them a day to meet everyone and tour the Embassy before having a weekend to help adjust to the time change. What didn’t help however was the fact that the sun doesn’t set till around midnight here in the summer. I am pretty sure I returned to work on Monday more jetlagged than before. However, a busy workweek, full of special events, forced me to adjust quickly and get into the pace of a 9-5, and often later, workday.

That first week was a busy one for the Embassy, Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Lynne Tracy was in town for events surrounding the 100,000th container transported on the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) and attempts to commercialize the trade route. For those that don’t know, the NDN is a network of land and sea transport that supplies American and NATO troops in Afghanistan by transporting non-lethal goods through the Baltics and then Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan. The first event was a roundtable discussion with the Latvian government about the possibility of commercializing the NDN and enhancing trade to and within the Central Asian region. That evening, the Embassy hosted a celebration at the Riga Freeport, where foreign dignitaries from across the Baltics and Central Asia gathered to christen the 100,000th container and talk of new economic and trade ties beginning to be formed.

Later that week, I worked late again to host an awards ceremony for a NATO simulation summit that drew students from across the three Baltic countries and Russia. NATO sponsored the event and the top five teams won an all expenses paid trip to headquarters in Brussels. The event was a good chance for me to work the crowd and meet the Baltics’ future leaders and even the Embassy’s two newest Latvian interns. Events like this one continue to highlight the importance of being able to easily strike up a conversation and build a professional network.

Now that I have begun to settle into my daily routine here, I am working on two large projects that will consume the majority of my time here in Latvia. The first report will be on reforms in the Latvian higher education system being pursued by Minister of Education Dombrovskis. In order to keep Washington fully informed on the state of developments in Riga, I will meet with officials in the Ministry of Education, rectors of Latvian universities, and representatives of student governance. My second report will focus on children’s rights and specifically the emerging foster care system and continued institutionalization of children. For this report, I will meet with officials from the Ministry of Welfare, non-profit representatives, social workers, and other key stakeholders. Besides the two reports, I have been working on a daily update that gets sent to Washington at the end of each day and various cables (basically official emails) that need to be sent to Washington on issues such as Latvia’s proposed 2014 entrance into the Eurozone. I have to say that I have been incredibly impressed by my colleagues’ intelligence and desire to welcome me and give me worthwhile work. I am truly looking forward to these following weeks as I get to dig into these important issues here in Latvia and continue to learn and be challenged on a daily basis.

Any and all content appearing in this post is solely the opinion of the author and in no way represents the policies and/or opinions of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Government.

Midway

"Any and all content appearing in this post is solely the opinion of the author and in no way represents the policies and/or opinions of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Government."

During my second week, I met with the section heads of each of the departments at the Embassy: Consular, Public Affairs, Political/Economic, Defense Attaché, and the Office of Defense Cooperation. This allowed me to meet staff from across the embassy, here about what they were working on, and get a glimpse of the multi-faceted work of American foreign diplomacy. During that week I also had a courtesy call with the Ambassador and the Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM). In the courtesy calls we discussed my studies and future plans, what I hoped to do at the embassy, and how they could help me realize those goals. I didn’t know at the moment but I would end up seeing a lot of both of them as the Office Management Assistant had to go on emergency leave and I, along with the two other interns, would be covering the “Front Office” in her absence. Our main jobs were answering the phones and coordinating the Ambassador and DCM’s schedules. Even if working in the Front Office prevented me from getting to work more on my own projects, it did challenge me to be flexible and adaptable to new situations and tasks and give me an understanding of the day-to-day work of an ambassador.

During my third week, I was able jump into my two projects on higher education reform and children’s rights. For my work on higher education reform I have been able to meet with the Director of Higher Education and Innovation departments at the Ministry of Education, the special advisor to the Minister of Education on integration issues, the president of the Latvian Student Association, and members of parliament. A highlight of my time so far was getting to attend a meeting between the Ambassador and the Minister of Education and Science. After looking so much at reforms and where they are going, hearing directly from the Minister of Education was both interesting and just plain cool. Meetings have been my favorite part of work here as they allow me to get out of the office and learn more about the political and economic situation in Latvia from the people drafting policy and leading its implementation on a national level. I am excited going forward to learn more about the efforts to increase the number of programs offered in English here, to consolidate the number of universities and programs, and to increase the amount and quality of scientific research.

For my project on children’s rights I have met with people from several leading NGOs, the Director of the State Inspectorate for Children’s Rights, and will be meeting with a member of parliament, lawyers from the Ombudsman’s office and representatives from the Welfare Ministry. This topic is of particular interest to me as I am focusing on the continued use of orphanages and the development of a foster care system. In the past, I worked at a summer camp in Latvia that provided a free camp experience to kids from social housing developments and orphanages and as such am very familiar with this population. Getting to meet with NGOs and work to find ways that the American government can work to support their valiant efforts through workshops, networking, or small grants is something that makes me really feel like the work I am doing here is worthwhile. I am not just able to promote American values of freedom, tolerance and equality of all; but also, I am able to advocate and work for the marginalized in an effort to strengthen the Latvian socio-political environment and create a safer and more prosperous world for Americans and Latvians alike.

Final Reflections

I have just wrapped up my eight-week internship at the U.S. Embassy in Riga and am feeling very grateful to all of my colleagues for making me feel so welcomed and an integral part of the team. In my farewell call with the Acting Chief of Mission yesterday, I got to reflect on my time here over the summer, what I have accomplished, what I have learned, and most importantly how this will affect me going forward. Before coming to Latvia, I had hoped that this experience would give me a definitive understanding of what exactly I want to do after college. While this summer has not made me all knowing, it has nonetheless given me a better sense of what qualities I want in a job. I now know that I want a job where I get to work in a team setting, where I get to spend a lot of time outside of the office, where I get to have some sense of direction over my work, and most importantly where I feel that my work is making a difference in someone’s life.

During my last week I was able to finish the two cables that I wrote for each of the projects I had been working on and completed the lengthy revision and clearance process that is required to make sure that all parts of the Embassy, or State Department, that are affected by a particular cable approve its distribution. I am proud of the final products and hope that they will serve to inform policy makers in Washington and at the Embassy in Riga of the status of Latvian reform initiatives in higher education and the child social services network. The ability to decide what issues are most in need of attention and to get to drive the reporting was my favorite component of the internship. Through those projects I was also able to not only learn about the specific situations, but more generally to view how the daily world of policy decisions operates and to better develop my writing skills. If I have one take away lesson from the summer, it would be that I must continue to improve and hone my writing skills. In almost any job that requires critical analysis, and certainly in the State Department, clear and concise writing is essential.

I want to express my sincerest gratitude to the staff at University Career Services, to the Parent’s Fund, and to Dean Woo for their hard work to make the internship grants a reality. The financial assistance that the PFIG provided allowed me to have a transformative experience that has helped me to more clearly define my career goals and policy interests.