Monday, June 27, 2022

The Power of a Mentor

I was struck by a recent experience where a mentor of mine encouraged me to apply for a very selective leadership program. The thing is, I had received information about the program before but it never occurred to me to put myself forward for one of the few available spots until I read my mentor's email. I'd skimmed right over the program announcement even though it sounded interesting because I thought I wouldn't be competitive, especially so early in my career.

When I received the email from my mentor suggesting I'd be a great fit for the program, I took another look at the announcement. I didn't have much time left before I began my maternity leave and wondered whether I could even complete the application before I left. I decided I would have enough on my plate with a newborn at home learning how to be a parent and did not want to worry about applying while on leave. At the same time, the more I learned about the yearlong program the more impressed I was. If I was honest with myself, I did want to be a part of it. Because the program would be an extra time commitment and a work trip on top of my already busy next job in DC, I talked it over with M and we agreed that I should pursue it. We would work together to make sure we could take care of baby S and I could reach my breastfeeding goals and make the program work if I was accepted.

So I scurried for a few weeks writing essays, collecting recommendation letters, receiving approval from my DC supervisor, and submitting everything way before the deadline so I wouldn't have to worry about it on leave. My last week before I gave birth at the beginning of April, I sent the last item off and the program office responded that they had received all the components of my application. All I had to do was wait until the end of May to find out whether I got in. The time until May flew by given that all my attention was on my baby, and so I was surprised to check my email one day and see a message that I had been selected for one of the few Department of State-funded slots for the program.

This whole experience made me realize how important a mentor can be not just in providing advice when the mentee seeks them out but also identifying opportunities for mentees and encouraging them or vouching for them to get those opportunities. I think this is one of those things that separates a phenomenal mentor from merely a good mentor: they are always looking out for things that might help their mentees advance professionally and advocating for them in ways other than the formal structure of a monthly lunch or official mentoring program might dictate.

If you're dying to know what this program is, it's not a secret: the International Career Advancement Program (ICAP). Officially, it's "a professional development and leadership program for highly promising mid-career professionals in international affairs in the United States, sponsored by the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and by the Aspen Institute." It has a focus on promoting diverse leadership as well as public and community service in my career field and related fields. It also includes a weeklong summit in gorgeous Aspen, Colorado (the first photo of this post). I don't want to go into too much detail about the program on this post because I hope to do future posts on ICAP in more detail and that wasn't the main point of this post anyway.

So if you're a mentor to somebody and you see an opportunity they might not know about or might not think to put themselves forward for, reach out and see if all they needed was some support from someone they respect and admire. Mentorship is a powerful thing, and done correctly it can make a huge difference in the trajectory of a mentee (and, in the grand scheme of things over time, a whole institution).

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Quick Trip to Jeju Island (and First Time Flying with Baby)

Our time in South Korea is getting shorter and shorter, and one thing that was high on my bucket list was visiting Jeju Island. We didn't have a chance to go until now, but while I'm on maternity leave we thought it would be the perfect trial run of traveling on a plane with baby S for the first time. Because the domestic airport is closer and we had fewer bags and the flight is much, much shorter, we could give flying with S a go in a much less stressful environment than we'll have before we PCS (Permanent Change of Station, or move from one tour of assignment to another).

Honestly, the whole travel experience was much easier than I expected. Because we had S with us, we got to skip the security line and all the airport staff and taxi drivers were extra nice to us. The biggest challenge was explaining to people that S must be in our infant car seat. In Korea, mothers generally just hold their babies in their laps for drives and flights. We got plenty of practice holding our ground on the car seat at the hospital where S was born, though, and although many people were confused why we had booked S his own seat and didn't want to check the car seat they did let us fly the way we planned. Other parents who had traveled with babies recommended we feed S or make sure he's sucking on something during takeoff and landing to help with his ears popping, so we brought a pacifier for him. It seemed to work well.

It was rainy and gloomy the whole time we were in Jeju. A lot of people recommend renting a car if you want to explore the island, but honestly traveling with an infant is so challenging (and I would say made a lot of the sites we would otherwise have visited impossible) that we decided just to take a taxi to our hotel. We also booked at the Jeju Shinhwa World Marriott Resort because we figured there would be enough to do that we wouldn't feel bad if we never ventured far beyond the hotel at all and because we got a lot of loyalty membership points from when we were in a government-provided apartment during Korean language training that gives us special rewards whenever we stay at a Marriott. From the moment we reached the hotel, that decision paid off: we got a free upgrade to a gorgeous suite.

Most Korean moms and babies basically don't leave the house for the child's first 100 days, so I think many strangers were surprised to see a baby as young as S out and traveling at his age. There were a lot of families with children at the resort, but all the kids we saw were older than S. We had also requested a bassinet/crib for our room for S to sleep in, and although they brought one there were clearly more cultural differences at play. Although the crib was in line with U.S. safety standards, the hotel had filled the crib with multiple blankets and a pillow - which is strictly against safe sleep guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Thankfully, we were able to remove the pillow and the blankets and form a safe sleep space, or otherwise M and I would've had to hold S all night in shifts. If you're planning on doing some international traveling with your infant, I highly recommend a travel crib just to have that peace of mind and not be dependent on your accommodations for having a sleep space that is up to your personal standards and comfort level.

After we got the crib situation sorted out and I fed S, we all went to the hotel restaurant for a delicious dinner buffet. The food was so amazing that I forgot to take any pictures of it. Because we were in Jeju, I knew I had to try plenty of seafood so I enjoyed Korean hairtail (갈치), squid (오징어), pollock (북어구이), and sliced raw fish (회). I even tried whole abalone (전복) in the shell for the first time! (I would describe the flavor as somewhere between a clam and a mushroom with a nice, dense texture.) The next day, we explored the resort. It included shops, swimming pools, and a bunch of restaurants. I even tried some of Jeju's famous black pork (제주까망돼지). The meat isn't black, but the pig it comes from is. Although it didn't taste any different from regular pork to me, my pork tomahawk dinner was fantastic.

Our suite was so wonderful that we ended up spending a lot of downtime in our room. It worked out especially well because our mini vacation coincided with #1000wordsofsummer, an online writing challenge I decided to participate in where people commit to write at least 1,000 words a day for 14 days in a row. The writing challenge was started by Jami Attenberg and is hosted through her weekly newsletter, CRAFT TALK, with lots of engagement in the #WritingCommunity on social media. (I know my 2022 New Year's Resolution is to do less, but this one was only 14 days! And I hadn't written fiction in a long time, so it felt nice to do it for just two weeks.) In that two weeks, I was able to write two science fiction short stories, one fairy tale short story, two personal blog posts, a grant application, and two blog posts for The Exponent (a Mormon feminist blog where I am a permablogger and write at least once a month). It was a nice outlet for my creative energy, but I definitely couldn't sustain a thousand words a day for much longer than that so I'm glad it was as short as it was.

I also enjoyed plenty of reading and gaming. Lately my game of choice is Paper Mario: The Origami King. I chose the game as the perfect low-stakes, low-stress option for fun without pressure to collect every item or complete every side quest. The main story is very linear, so it's also easy to pick up where you left off if you take a break. (I also played Paper Mario as a kid so the nostalgia is pretty powerful.) On the trip, I also finished two books: Gay Latter-day Saint Crossroads, a book Evan Smith wrote about LGBTQ acceptance as a bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and as a father of a gay son, and Skulduggery Pleasant, a dark fantasy novel by Derek Landy that my Relief Society selected as our book club read for the month. It was perfect timing because a book I've been eagerly awaiting to be released (The Blood Traitor, third in the Prison Healer fantasy trilogy by Lynette Noni) came out during our trip and I was able to start it, too.

S was such a great first-time traveler. He was so curious and calm throughout his time in taxis, airports, and planes. We did have to mess up his usual nap routine and he was pretty tired the first night in Jeju, but he bounced back fast. Many friends told us traveling with super young babies (i.e., before they can crawl or walk) is ideal because they sleep so much and aren't usually as antsy being confined to one seat. That was definitely true of our experience traveling with S.

My biggest complaint about our vacation was that it felt far too short! The real purpose of our trip was to practice flying with S, and we accomplished our goal. But between the weather and the resort and the logistics of traveling with a baby, there's so much to do and see in Jeju that we didn't get a chance to do this time. At least it gives us the perfect excuse to come back someday.

Friday, June 10, 2022

Happy Pride Month!

Happy Pride Month! If you're not familiar with Pride Month, it's an opportunity every year in the month of June to celebrate LGBTQI+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and other gender and sexual minority) people. It traces its history to the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in New York. The month traditionally features Pride Parades, community events, and celebrations of LGBTQI+ contributions past and present. Pride is typically associated with the rainbow flag, which was created by Gilbert Baker in 1978. In 2018, Daniel Quasar designed the Progress Pride flag, which combines the rainbow flag with the colors of the transgender pride flag, which was created by Monica Helms in 1999, as well as black and brown stripes to symbolize the importance of fighting transphobia and racism. The New Pride flag has increased in visibility in recent years, and it's a beautiful design.

The U.S. Embassy in Seoul marked Pride Month with a special event at the Ambassador's residence. The highlight was a private concert by LIONESSES (라이오네시스), the first openly LGBTQ K-pop band. You can read more about the four-member boy band on The Advocate or SK Pop. LIONESSES is a relatively new group that debuted in November 2021. Of the four members - Damjun (담준), Foxman, Kanghan (강한), and Lee Malrang (이말랑) - only Damjun shows his face while the others are always masked. Our event was no exception.

The group was so talented, and every member brought different skills to the stage. One was a highly trained opera singer, one was an infectiously good dancer, one was a smooth rapper, and one was a charismatic leader. Two of them had even been trained at K-pop management companies before deciding to strike out on their own as an independent boy band. It was a wonderful opportunity to come together and celebrate LGBTQI+ people through friendship and music. Do yourself a favor and listen to their debut song, "Show Me Your Pride". It's phenomenal!

Advancing LGBTQI+ rights is part of U.S. foreign policy. As Secretary Blinken said, "The struggle to end violence, discrimination, criminalization, and stigma against LGBTQI+ persons is a global challenge that remains central to our commitment to promote human rights and fundamental freedoms for all individuals. " Our efforts to end violations of LGBTQI+ human rights and ensure our grants and programs lift up marginalized people including gender and sexual minorities are in line with President Biden's Memorandum on Advancing the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex Persons Around the World. As Biden put it, "All human beings should be treated with respect and dignity and should be able to live without fear no matter who they are or whom they love. Around the globe, including here at home, brave lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) activists are fighting for equal protection under the law, freedom from violence, and recognition of their fundamental human rights. The United States belongs at the forefront of this struggle — speaking out and standing strong for our most dearly held values." I'm proud to advocate for policies that protect human rights while recognizing our own country's many shortcomings. We have a lot to share and a lot to learn on these issues.

So how are you celebrating Pride Month? I hope wherever you are that you have safety and comfort and peace this month, as well as a chance to learn more about LGBTQI+ contributions and an opportunity to advocate for everyone's rights to be respected and included.

Friday, June 3, 2022

Internships and a Career in International Affairs

It's getting hot here in Korea, and we've started the process of saying goodbye to folks as summer transfer season progresses and so many people (us included) get ready to move again. For this blog post, I thought I'd address a question a lot of students and prospective Foreign Service applicants ask me, especially around summertime: do you need internships for a career in international affairs?

The short answer, I believe, is no. Does it hurt? Also no. It's important to note that the international affairs job market is extremely competitive and more and more candidates now have certain things that used to be just "nice to have": graduate degrees (especially the increasingly common M.A. in International Affairs or something similar), internships, fluency in multiple foreign languages, etc. So the more of these boxes you can check, the less likely you will get screened out early in a process with hundreds or thousands of applications where recruiters (or robots) are looking for any reason to whittle down the pool to a manageable shortlist.

Unfortunately, when it comes to internships in the international affairs field many of the opportunities are still unpaid. Because plenty of people are willing to do unpaid work and can afford it, I don't see that culture changing anytime soon. If you are a university student, your school might have financial support available if you seek an unpaid internship. When I attended George Washington University, for example, they provided stipends through their career center for students pursuing unpaid internships. Unpaid internships are simply inaccessible for many people, however, who have bills to pay and only so many hours in the day. The Department of State just started offering paid student internships, which many of us in the Department welcomed as a step towards making a career in foreign affairs more accessible to low-income students. For those who cannot travel to DC or a foreign embassy, there are also unpaid Virtual Student Foreign Service internships that can be done in as little as a few hours a week. (If you're an international affairs professional and your organization still relies on unpaid interns, please see what you can do to advocate for paying those interns or at least providing stipends or scholarships to applicants who demonstrate financial need!)

I did three internships before joining the Foreign Service: two unpaid internships in the Department of State (financially supported by scholarships and stipends from my school) and one paid internship in the Department of Homeland Security. Two of my internships were in Washington, DC, and one was at the U.S. Embassy in Paris. All of them were extremely valuable and taught me a lot about federal government work, public engagement (as they were all communications-related jobs), and foreign policy. I don't want to downplay how helpful they were: I'm grateful I had the chance to do them. (And I even dug up some old internship photos just for this post!)

If you can't do an internship, though, please don't count out a career in the Foreign Service. Internship experience is not required, and plenty of people in my A-100 orientation class of new diplomats did not have government experience or relevant internships. (Former interns also need to manage their expectations. Unlike in the tech industry and other fields, international affairs and government internships often do not result in a job offer from the same employer for a full-time job.) What's more important in your essays and interviews is that you articulate how your skills and prior experience - whatever that is - prepared you for the career. One example I used in my application was my time working a customer service job for an outdoor furniture company. That job taught me how to absorb a ton of information quickly (as I had to memorize a massive product catalogue with enough detail to advise customers) and how to de-escalate and resolve conflict (as I spent hours on the phone with mostly polite but sometimes irate callers).

Even if you can spend an hour or two per week volunteering in your desired field, that can have a huge impact when you decide to make the switch. I talked to Foreign Service Officers and Specialists who transitioned from other industries but spent time teaching immigrants English or computer skills or welcoming refugees or hosting exchange students or attending polyglot mixers or advocating for better public policy or taking some of their free time to nurture their passion for international affairs while giving back to their community in some way. Those experiences aren't internships, but in my opinion they can be just as meaningful when it comes to preparing someone for a Foreign Service career.

Although I'm hopeful internships will become more broadly accessible over time to more people, it's a good thing that an internship is not a prerequisite for a job because there will always be people who for whatever reason are unable to intern. Long story short, if you have the chance to go for an international affairs internship and you want to explore a career in the field, then you should take advantage of it. But don't feel like you should throw in the towel just because you haven't done an internship, either. There are many, many paths to the Foreign Service and public service in general. You don't have to follow mine or anyone else's.