Principal Officer Ellen Wong spoke to 150 American Students at the University of Edinburgh about life in the Foreign Service
I was actually born in Canada but I only lived there for six months so I am a naturalised American citizen. I think I first realised I was interested in international ‘things’ as a teenager. My dad was a university professor about to take a sabbatical and asked ‘do we as a family want to go to Michigan, California or Sweden?’ I said ‘Sweden!’ It was a great experience and got me interested in international ‘stuff’ for the rest of my life. When I got to university, I studied both German and Chinese and eventually chose German and politics as my major because the German department was really small and I was able to get a lot of personalised attention. Strangely enough, due to the vagaries of the State Department, I have never served in Germany.
Right after university I did a Fulbright for a year in Germany. I was on a teaching Fulbright where you teach at a school for a year and I recommend it. I was teaching 12 hours a week and otherwise I took courses at Frankfurt University. It was a great way of living in a country and I really got to know Germany.
After that I did some work in the private sector and then decided I wanted to go to graduate school. I went to grad school at Johns Hopkins University and studied international relations. During my second year I realised I did not know what I wanted to do so I decided to take the Foreign Service exam. I thought ‘there’s no risk in taking it. I’ll just see what happens!’ I passed it and took the oral exam and was able to start shortly after I finished grad school.
When you first start the Foreign Service you have what are called ‘directed assignments.’ There is a long list of posts (assignments) that are available for entry level officers. You select the ones you like but theoretically you could be sent anywhere in the world. My first posting was to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to do consular work. In Vietnam, consular work consists mostly of doing visas and among those are quite a lot of fiancé visas. If you have ever seen ‘90 Fiancé’ – that was us!
But the experience that most sticks in my mind happened about three months after I arrived at post. It was around Christmas time and I was in Vietnam but on vacation when I got a call from the second in command at post asking where I was and when I was coming back. I said I was coming back the next day. Then I was asked, ‘would you be okay going to Thailand?’ The tsunami had just hit Thailand and Indonesia. There were many people in those embassies on vacation and I don’t think anyone at the time realised the scope of the disaster. At that point they were scrambling to get foreign service officers there to help Americans who had lost loved ones and to repatriate people. The next day I got on a plane to Thailand and went to Phuket for two weeks. I did a little bit of everything. I stayed for a week with the family whose son had died and they could not find the body. I helped an elderly gentleman whose Thai wife and family had been swept away. He had family in the United States but had no identification. It took him a week to get to Phuket to try and find an American Embassy presence to help him get back to the United States. And he was so very grateful to have an American face. I talked with him a lot about basketball because for him that was America and he had not spoken to anyone in English for a week. So that was a formative experience in my first tour.
My second tour was also a directed assignment to Trinidad and Tobago. This time I did both consular work and economic work. Trinidad and Tobago has lots of oil and gas so I worked on that and also on intellectual property issues. After the second tour, you start applying for jobs in the State Department in the same way you would in the private sector. I had some Chinese Ianguage and I had always wanted to live in China so I applied to be an economic officer in China. But I actually did two years training before I ever stepped foot in China because one of the wonderful things about the State Dept is you do get a lot of language training. The State Department will recruit people that have language skills – especially in hard languages like Chinese, Arabic and Japanese because it takes such a long time to get to a level where you are useful in those languages, but any kind of language skills are useful. You can also have no language skills when you enter and the State Department will train you. I spent six months learning Vietnamese before I went to Vietnam. I spent a year brushing up on my Chinese before I started working in China and I spent most of that year studying Chinese in China.
I spent three years as an econ officer in China working on investment issues, state owned enterprises, and a range of economic issues. Beijing is a huge embassy with about 400 Americans and 1000 staff overall. Altogether there are about 2,000 staff among the embassy and all the consulates in China.
In the Foreign Service, they want you to spend a lot of time overseas but you also need to spend time back in Washington to understand ‘how the hamburger is made – how the whole policy process works.’ In Washington, you have the Secretary of State, you have a Deputy Secretary of State, and then you have about six or seven Under Secretaries that manage different functional areas. I worked for the Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment. It used to just be a division on economic issues but then they realised that we also have environmental concerns and also energy is becoming an increasingly important part of the economic picture. I was the Under Secretary’s Asia expert from 2013 to 2015.
After that assignment I stayed on in Washington on the Germany desk. There were four of us on the Germany desk and I was the senior desk officer for Germany. As a desk officer you do not make policy, you coordinate policy. If other agencies are working on Germany issues you make sure that you know about it. You are the coordinating mechanism between embassies and consulates in the country and Washington. We spent a lot of time writing last minute briefing memos for the Secretary of State, who was talking with his German counterpart roughly once a week. Sometimes you did not get a lot of warning. You might have less than 2 hours to write a briefing memo for a call in 3 hours. Generally, they were discussing global issues like Syria, Ukraine. So we went to the desks specializing in those countries and issues and asked ‘what’s the latest on this? Where are we on this policy? What do we need to press the Germans on or what might the German raise as an issue?’ We also coordinated with US Embassy in Germany, asking them the latest they had heard on the various issues. I did that for two years. It was a fascinating time to be working on Germany because Europe is such a critical partner for the US on a range of issues. So while we worked on some bilateral issues, often it was multilateral trying to figure out how can we work together.
After that, I went in a very different direction and went to Bangladesh to be the deputy in the economic and pollical section. Before I went there, I thought I would be working on the closing democratic space and also working on economic deals. It’s a country of 165 million people and there’s little American investment there so far. We thought there would be good opportunities for American businesses to invest in Bangladesh, which would benefit both sides. However, a week after I arrived, the first of 700,000 Rohingya refugees crossed the border from Burma, so I spent most of the year working on refugee issues. It was important that we gave funding for the relief effort. Congress votes on the budget for this so I took the person who actually writes the budget in Congress to the refugee camps. I took groups of Representatives out there so they could understand the scope of the issue. It was really challenging work. We heard heart wrenching stories from Rohingya every time but it was also rewarding. You felt the work you were doing was saving lives and that the funding the US provided (which was about 25% of the global appeal) was making a difference. It was a really hard but rewarding that brought me here – to Scotland.
There is a sense of equity in the State Department – that if you serve somewhere very challenging that you will be sent somewhere that might not be as challenging. Bangladesh was very challenging and not just because of the Rohingya situation. There were a series of terrorist attacks which led to the embassy being ‘drawn down.’ Obviously, I do not have those issues in Scotland!
It’s been really interesting. I am the only American officer at the consulate in Edinburgh and we do everything from helping American citizens to expanding promoting and expanding the US-Scotland relationship in a range of ways, economic, cultural and people-to-people. If you want to know more about what we are doing, do follow us on twitter! @USAinScotland