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Why the Foreign Service Needs Young People More Than Ever

While it’s important for Americans not to overestimate their country’s influence beyond its borders, and to recognize that every sovereign nation has proud traditions and healthy self-conceptions, it’s also fair to say that the United States is not simply “another country.”

Whether Americans know it or not, America’s influence is felt in every corner of the globe. The United States’ diverse, near-ubiquitous popular culture and multinational brands—Nike, Coca-Cola, Facebook, Microsoft and others—certainly do their part to spread this influence.

But individual American nationals are equally influential, if not more so.

The Foreign Service: Making a Mark on the World Stage

No group of American nationals does more to shape international perceptions of the United States than members of the foreign service—the thousands of diplomatic professionals who work in the United States and around the world under the aegis of the U.S. State Department.

Joining the foreign service is a difficult proposition. The entry requirements include a formidable series of knowledge exams and a thorough medical examination. According to the State Department, the foreign service is more selective than Harvard. That’s selective: Per the most recent available statistics, the venerable Cambridge institution admits just over 5 percent of undergraduate applicants.

The foreign service’s choosiness isn’t a deterrent. If anything, aspiring diplomats view it as a welcome challenge. And, in an increasingly uncertain world, it’s an opportunity for the United States to put its best foot forward in dealings with fellow nations—friends, foes and sometimes-partners alike.

Many foreign service veterans believe it’s never been more important for high-achieving young Americans to consider serving.

“I would not be who I am today had I not devoted nearly a decade of my professional career to advancing the interests of the United States abroad, and I suspect most of my [foreign service] colleagues would say the same,” says Syga Thomas, a Washington, D.C.-based entrepreneur and philanthropist who served in South Korea, Niger and elsewhere.

Why should ambitious young people follow in Thomas’ footsteps? Here are several compelling reasons.

The Foreign Service Isn’t a Lifetime Appointment

Like many of his peers, Thomas entered the foreign service as a young man. He left with the bulk of his working life still ahead. For restless millennials, who change jobs more frequently than their parents, that’s a key selling point. Career-track foreign service posts typically last three to five years at most, giving younger diplomats the flexibility to change tack.

Foreign Service Professionals Don’t Require Extensive Specialization

All aspiring foreign service professionals must endure a gauntlet of oral, written and medical exams. Beyond that, the job requires relatively little specialization or credentialing. Diplomats come from all walks of life and carry all manner of higher-ed degrees. Most do have expertise in international affairs, economics or political science, but that’s largely due to self-sorting—aspiring diplomats are simply more likely to be interested in these subjects.

The Foreign Service Is Apolitical

The State Department is part of the federal government’s executive branch, but its career employees are studiously divorced from politics. That’s doubly true for foreign service employees, who live by the old saw: “Politics stops at the water’s edge.” No matter your politics, you’ll find a welcoming home in the diplomatic corps.

Foreign Service Professionals Can Bridge a Growing Socioeconomic Divide

Contrary to stereotype, not all foreign service professionals are children of privilege. Many have firsthand experience with hardship, want, violence and familial instability. As economic and political instability mount around the world, challenging the foundations of the post-World War II order, it’s crucial that the foreign service continue to attract a diverse, representative cohort that collectively understands these anxieties—and knows it takes decisive action to address them.

 


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