By Cherie Webster, CNN • Published 13th September 2020
For legions of American families, life as a federal government employee can become a bittersweet slog of constant uncertainty, expense and constant moving around, in which most workers settle for a job whose salary is too low to lift the family above the poverty line.
For the nearly 170,000 American diplomats and foreign service officers working in the Americas — some nine out of 10 of them women — the opportunities to build careers and advance in the global body are virtually non-existent.
That’s one reason America’s Foreign Service Institute , a federally-funded service academy, opened its first school for future diplomats in 2009, aiming to prepare a new generation of female diplomats with a combination of innovation and grit.
Even as employment data is changing, the US Foreign Service Institute is seeing a new crop of women reaching the foreign service.
Fast facts about the US Foreign Service
Women make up 46% of the US Foreign Service
72% of US diplomats and foreign service officers come from foreign-born parents
According to the Institute, 5,000 applicants turn out for the 10-week course each year, and only a small percentage are selected.
Nearly 30% of the country’s leading foreign service officers have immigrant roots. There are over 650 countries they are to have served.
In the decades prior to the institute, the Foreign Service “had been populated largely by men with Anglo-Saxon backgrounds, who tended to be consumed by the Cold War conflict in the 1970s, World War II, and the struggle to bring democracy to new countries,” said Joelle Kunesh, the current director of the college and a 24-year veteran of the Foreign Service.
“The new generation of women and minority officers come from many different backgrounds, yet they all have the same motivation, which is to use their education and experience to fulfill their duty as part of the global community.
“They care about seeing the world and growing, yet they often don’t have the resources to do so, and many must decide whether to work in a lower-paying job, to take a second job, or to become a nanny, to afford food and rent,” Kunesh said.
‘The pitch has always been, ‘Be the first one to do this’
For the foreign service families who do make it out, whether they are 10 or 20 years in, a career is oftentimes not well-defined.
There are no established career paths, such as those on offer at most Fortune 500 companies. And staying around can be expensive.
The Institute’s undergraduate and graduate programs provide much of the intellectual grounding for its graduates, but unlike comparable state and private institutions, none offer student loans.
As a result, the average immigrant to the Foreign Service makes only $45,000 annually, while a spouse can earn just over $15,000.
That’s not uncommon when looking at the salaries in the private sector — most families barely make enough to afford housing.
“I never thought (receiving a foreign service degree) would end up be a 24-year effort. It’s been very lengthy. It’s a huge commitment,” said Janis Dorf, a German who has been teaching a class at the institute since 2006.
“But it’s quite different from my family’s experience. I am French, and (my husband) is German, and both of them — my parents — never did further education. The pitch has always been, ‘Be the first one to do this,’ ” Dorf said.
But a joint study conducted by the Institute and the National Foreign Service Association found that the younger generation’s common thread is optimism.
‘I can help others’
“When we study foreign service today, we discover that prospective students have broadened their perspectives by studying a wider array of subjects — including psychology, sociology, political science, economics, and anthropology — as well as English and French language skills. They have a global perspective in their native languages, unlike their parents, who learned English from a teacher in the public school.
“While these students’ very intense focus on their studies at the Foreign Service Institute may indicate that they are an extreme version of this ‘Ivy League’ type of student, the success rate indicates that the global mindset of the student likely extends beyond the classroom as well.”
Some students learn much about themselves while tackling writing, analytic writing, analytical editing, and public speaking. Other students learn firsthand how diplomacy works and how diplomacy can be used for social good.
Leave a Comment