Midway Through at State

A statue in a courtyard of the State Department.

Although somehow halfway through, I feel like I’m finally getting adjusted to the swing of things at work. Periods of busy activity appear in bursts, buttressed by lulls. In part, I have been told that this is the nature of work in this office. After all, the G-7 doesn’t occur without prior diplomatic trumpeting, and the UN General Assembly is an annual affair.

As an outsider, it’s been novel for me to see the preparations that precede meetings, speeches, and congressional Q & As. I’d never given as much thought before to the effort that goes into making sure federal figureheads are truly representing the Department’s policies and priorities.

In a process called ‘clearance’, multiple offices sign off on the contents of a document. The offices who sign off on the document are designated to ‘clear’ on that document because they have regional and functional expertise in areas relevant to the document’s contents. In many ways, it’s kind of like a group project. I like the collective nature of it, the idea that every bright person at State is pooling their knowledge to make it greater than the sum of its individual parts. How cool!

Of course, this could also be called a diffusion of responsibility — who, indeed, gets to make policy? These are some of the fundamental questions I have: what is American foreign policy in theory? How is it enacted in practice on the ground? How do these two paradigms differ? Who is making it, in theory and in praxis? I’m encouraged to attend think tank events at work, and these could help shape a response to some of these questions.

Outside of work, I take long walks to the many free museums the city offers. I frequent blogs such as this one on free things to do in DC to see what’s going on. When I have the time, I try to attend meetings for various activist, political, and religious groups, which has given my summer many different — and sometimes competing — flavors.

Interning has vastly differed from university life in that the schedule is set. I walk to work at 7:50 every morning, getting there by 8:15; I get home around the same time each day. At school, I have the freedom — and the burden — to forge my own schedule. Having a life outside of work here means I have to sum up energy around sunrise or sunset. Before work, I try to go on long runs around the Lincoln memorial and ponds, the grass dewy on my sneakers. After work, I often head back to the same place, to read in the grass and watch the summer sun sink into the night. In all honesty, being in the same room for an entire day becomes tiring; I try to be outside as much as I can when I’m not at work, even if that means I’m sweaty and itchy from humidity and mosquitoes.

Perhaps being in an office — in any professional setting — is itself a skill, a learned habit, just like being successful at school is. Maybe it just doesn’t seem that way to most adults because they’ve learned the activity so well already.

I am trying to constantly learn from this environment, which is so novel and fascinating in every detail. I hope to take away both tangible skills — I’m learning data analysis applied to international relations, and teaching myself Python, text and sentiment analysis, and more — and intangible soft skills, like the art of diplomacy in a conversation.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are my own and not necessarily those of the U.S. Government.

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