Interning with the Department of State

As much as I would like to say that I stumbled into this wonderful opportunity and that I never really intended to end up in the government, that’s not really true. I worked, really hard, to get this internship because I wanted to see if the State Department is where I would like to make my career. I don’t want to have this post scare off anyone who is interested in exploring the US Foreign Service, but be aware that it isn’t an easy task.

First off, the application process is extremely involved. I spent the better part of my winter vacation filling out the internship application here. On paper, none of the steps or requirements look all that difficult, but be aware that a competitive application is generally at a much higher level than the basic requirements. I spent at least three days weeding through various pages of information about the internship program (click here for the most helpful pdf) so that I knew what they wanted in an applicant, and what I could reasonably request in an post. I spent another week drafting and revising my statement of interest and essays on my personal, academic, and employment histories.

I believe that a lot of my success in obtaining an internship is due to three factors:

  1. Interest and experience in a difficult post. The US government needs more people who are willing to venture to far-flung regions of the globe, learn the language and culture, and bring back knowledge to the US. Be willing to go someplace that others may not consider and your application will stand out. Very few interns will get a placement in London or Paris, so unless you have an extremely compelling reason for requesting that position, don’t bother.
  2. A background in the region’s culture, history, and language. If you have language training in Russian, Hindi, Chinese, or other lesser-studied language make sure to feature that in your application! Also, experience in the country that you are requesting is very valuable; all of the interns here in Chengdu have had some sort of study abroad experience and have studied Chinese for at least 2 years.
  3. A strong statement of interest. Coming out of my internship at BIOFarm, I had developed new skills and relationships, and most importantly, new goals. I knew that I was interested in food security, US-China relations, and wanted to learn more about US diplomatic work around the globe. I used my personal statement as a way to tie my educational background, work experience, information I had learned by studying the DoS materials, and my personal goals into a single story that fit within the mission of the internship. Everyone has a unique narrative, and therefore unique value to the DoS, highlight that here.

After that, the DoS will tell you if you’ve been selected as an intern. They will offer you exactly one position, and it is not necessarily what you wanted. When I applied, I said that I absolutely want to be in China, and would prefer a post near Hong Kong because of my exchange. And, although I guess I am relatively near Hong Kong, Chengdu was not what I was expecting. I also wasn’t prepared to be assigned to the Politics/ Economics section of the consulate, but now I’m beginning to appreciate why I was placed here. If you don’t like your offer, there isn’t an appeal process. There are too many applicants for too few positions to be very picky, so I say just go with whatever you are offered.

The security clearance process is absolutely grueling, and takes place sometime around midterms. The entire process can take anywhere from 2 to 6 months. As I’m writing this, two interns who were selected as primary candidates are still waiting to receive security clearance.  Essentially, this is a background check on an epic scale. You are asked to detail your educational, travel, and housing histories; provide references for each experience, list your immediate family so they can also be checked, provide personal references, and undergo an in-person interview to verify that all of this information is correct. The only advice I can really give you is to start early, be thorough, and don’t attempt to overthrow any governments in the mean time.

After going through all of that, I am finally here, living the dream.

Each morning, I walk to the consulate with my roommate, pass the People Liberation Army officers stationed outside the consulate, show my badge to the Chinese police officers who secure the first set of doors, repeat the process for the second set of doors, greet the marine who guards the inner doors, and finally get to my office. I’m still not used to working within what is essentially a high-security compound, but as my boss has explained countless times, we are essentially alone. China-US relations are constantly shifting and changing, and you can’t always predict when things will go south. That being said, we haven’t had problems in a long time. This post isn’t considered a high security threat, and I’ve never felt in danger while out and about in Chengdu.

As for day-to-day life as an intern, it really depends on which division you are posted in. In the consular section, interns help issue visas by fingerprinting and doing some of the computer work. In the management division, interns help welcome guests, manage in-house publications, provide entertainment to the families that live on compound, and any number of other things that come their way. In the Pol/Econ division, I help with research and help with new things that may suddenly pop up. Currently I’m doing some work on food security and organic farming, helping with the big 4th of July event, and tagging along with my supervisor on some simple tours. Truly, I am enjoying it.

Right now, it is hard to tell if this is something I want to do for the rest of my life. I’ve talked with many different consulate employees about their experiences, and it seems that the work is challenging in many ways, but incredibly rewarding if this is where your passions lie. Hopefully, by the end of the summer I will have a better idea, but for the moment I’m just trying to soak everything in.