How Does a College Student Fit in the World of Diplomacy?

A summer program in China and training at the Washington International Diplomatic Academy brought a Foreign Service career within reach.

Charlie Keohan spent the summer of 2019 at New York University's Shanghai campus, shortly before Chancellor Yu Lizhong (pictured above) welcomed the class of 2023. Photo courtesy of NYU.

Diplomats spend a lifetime learning new cultures and languages to develop a solid understanding of the countries in which they work. It’s not always possible to succeed in such an undertaking before it’s time to move on to the next post. An open mind and willingness to accept the reality of cultural differences are essential to developing relationships with people all over the world. It also helps to have a profound curiosity for traveling to new places and meeting new people.

I consider myself to have a good grasp of human nature and a curiosity for understanding new cultures. Two highlights of my college career, which will end next spring, have brought me closer to diplomacy than anything else I’ve experienced in my 21 years.

The first was a study-abroad program in China in the summer of 2019. I’ve studied the language and culture of China for the past seven years, and my interest led me to New York University’s campus in Shanghai. I wanted to test my language abilities in a native environment, and to experience Chinese culture and society firsthand, in order to discern whether I could see myself pursuing a career abroad. The experience was transformative, and I returned home eager to see more of the world in whatever way possible. I realized that, even in a place with different politics and significant cultural and language barriers, the people share a desire to develop unique relationships by focusing on the ways in which we are similar.

This past summer, I trained at the Washington International Diplomatic Academy (WIDA). Diplomacy is a practice of tradition and protocol, and during my time as a trainee, I developed a better understanding of the norms that connect foreign ministries, embassies and consulates around the world. They allow for order, predictability and efficiency — three core ideals that promote a sense of mutual respect between and among countries. It is through these standards of international behavior that cross-cultural communication between diplomats and citizens can thrive globally. Protocol may not be interesting to some, but I was drawn to it because of its significance for fostering mutual respect between countries separated by culture, language, history, religion and more.

During the exercises we did, I was able to engage with students and professionals from around the world who share the same interests. As I worked with these impressive fellow trainees, I was challenged to think of ways in which I could contribute most effectively to the group. The problem-solving experience I have gained through these exercises helped me understand the duties of Foreign Service officers in various career tracks.

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I realized my preference for political tradecraft after a simulation exercise on the planned relocation of U.S. air bases in Okinawa, Japan. In previous exercises, I hadn’t felt as confident as other group members to be proactive or take the lead. In this case, I jumped at the opportunity to present policy options for my group, which was assigned the role of the U.S. Embassy’s political section, to our instructor in that session, Ambassador Scot Marciel.

I took the lead in our breakout-room discussion with ideas on how to influence public opinion and win over the local Okinawan government. I thought of all the variables at play and evaluated their importance for our final proposal to let the Japanese government take the lead in the effort, while also addressing key environmental and safety concerns for the people of Okinawa. It was in this format where I felt most effective. I thought about the way in which the Japanese people might view the United States, as well as about their likely concerns. Starting from a broad range of suggestions from my group members, I focused on narrowing down a succinct set of proposals.

As a relatively extroverted person who has traveled to different parts of the world and met people of different backgrounds, I’m able to anticipate changes in perception and reactions to government policy. This is a skill that I view as my most valuable attribute for a future career in diplomacy. In addition to the political track, I’m also interested in public diplomacy. My experience with cross-cultural communication would help me in raising public awareness on important issues, organizing events and promoting policy objectives.

As I work towards my goal of becoming a Foreign Service officer, I will keep looking for opportunities to improve my skills in order to further the interests of the United States to the best of my ability. I plan to approach this process with an open mind, understanding that these interests might change, and feeling more confident than ever that I have a foundation of valuable knowledge thanks to my experience at WIDA.