Inside the Life of a Young Foreign Service Officer
His official title– Public Affairs Officer at US Embassy Banjul, The Gambia– is a mouthful, but it gets the point across.
“Life is funny,” says Josh. “My family has been in Pittsburgh since the 1890’s. I am the only one to live outside of the country. And since college, I knew the Foreign Service was the path I wanted to go down, it just took me some time to get there.”
Josh was an International Relations and Anthropology major at the University of Michigan. He got his start with the State Department during this time with an internship overseas– traveling to Kathmandu and Ho Chi Minh City.
After college, Josh ended up going back to Kathmandu to do consulting work for a year. He then landed at the Department of the Treasury. For 5 years Josh served at the Treasury, spending one year in Baghdad and another year as the Treasury attache in Saudi Arabia.
It was at this time that Josh finally came back to the State Department.
Along the way, Josh got married to the woman of his dreams– a tough feat for someone constantly on the go.
“My wife and I made the decision to be apart during the first tour,” explains Josh. “It certainly has been challenging being apart for two years. Technology doesn’t replace coming home to each other every night. The fact that we can talk and text during the day, that makes it easier.”
“The State Department also does a very good job of acclimating entry-level foreign service officers,” says Josh. ” They offer in-depth training on the department and how to navigate a career as a foreign service officer. It is something they have refined over decades of time. They also make it possible for families to travel together.”
Prepare to be a Foreign Service Officer
For those thinking of pursuing a career with the State Department, Josh wants you to be prepared for the realities of such a post. Here's his expert advice:
Be Prepared to Go Anywhere
That may sound obvious but it is an important point to make. People end up everywhere from Paris to Beijing, from Toronto to Ougadougou. One often ends up in places that are challenging.
Be Prepared to Be Away
I’ve been away from the U.S. off and on for the last twelve years, yet every time I leave – every time I say goodbye to my family and friends – it’s just as hard as the first time. Of course people think that living overseas is all glamorous. While the experiences are unparalleled, this is not a vacation, this is a way of life. And that way of life weighs on everyone, even those who have had long careers in the Foreign Service.
Be Prepared to do Things You Didn’t Think You Could Do
When one comes into the Foreign Service, a person selects a career track. My track is public diplomacy. My first assignment happened to be a public affairs assignment, but very often people serve in positions outside of their chosen career track. I'm currently in Banjul, where we have a small embassy. As such, I wear a number of hats, even in any given day. Not only am I the Embassy's Public Affairs Officer, but I'm also the backup Political and Economic Affairs Officer and Consular Officer – having spent weeks or months at a time fulfilling these responsibilities. I look at the opportunity to serve in different roles as an opportunity to learn a different skill set and explore other jobs, but one must be ready to adapt.
Be Prepared to Represent Your Country
Representing the U.S. is what we do day in and day out. Everything that a Foreign Service Officer does overseas in a professional or personal capacity is a representation of the United States. It is an honor, it is a privilege, but it is also a lot of responsibility. While serving as a Foreign Service Officer in a small country like The Gambia everyone knows who you are and that you work at the embassy. So whether I am driving my car, sitting on the beach, or at the grocery store I always feel that I am serving as a representative of the United States.
Be Prepared to Have Adventures
It's hard work, it requires sacrifice, but it truly is an adventure. Arriving to a new part of the world every few years, meeting new people, learning new languages, and adapting to a new culture and pace of life certainly keeps life exciting.
Photo Credit: Photos generously provided by Joshua Shrager.