Spotlight July - August 1998
Spotlight is PDForum's online journal of public diplomacy events, themes, policies and ideas. Readers of this site are welcome to contribute articles to Spotlight for online publication, or comment on the themes addressed here.
United States public diplomacy is conducted overseas by USIA foreign service officers, hired through the Foreign Service Examination process. One of USIA's new foreign service officers, Robin Holzhauer, has written about the background and motivation of candidates who joined USIA's foreign service with her in the spring of 1998. "Embarking on a Public Diplomacy Career: A Tale of Two Trainees" profiles two USIA junior officer trainees, who are currently in foreign service training in public diplomacy and foreign languages before going on to their first assignments overseas.
In "Presidential public diplomacy in China," Bob Holden examines the communications techniques and accomplishments of the president's visit. By using public forums to address the Chinese people, Clinton demonstrated his commitment to open dialogue as part of a free society and in Sino-American relations.
"It was career day in the third grade. I went as the U.S. representative to the UN. The teacher just kind of looked at me."
"At USIA, value is placed on cross-cultural knowledge, friendship and people contacts."
"It's not a job you do for the money. You have to make a real commitment to what you do."
Embarking on a Public Diplomacy Career:
By Robin Holzhauer
One didn't think much about taking the foreign service exam. The other couldn't think about anything else. Today, both women call themselves diplomats.
The paths they took from recent college graduates to foreign service officers differed, but the destination turned out the same. Both women now work for the United States Information Agency and will serve the United States at its embassies abroad.
Aleisha Woodward never had any doubts about what she would do with her life. But when, at age 8, she first proclaimed she would be a diplomat, few people took her seriously.
"It was career day in the third grade," Woodward recalled. "I went as the U.S. representative to the UN. The teacher just kind of looked at me -- you see, all the other kids went as doctors and nurses and pilots. She just looked at me and smiled like, 'Isn't that cute.' You know, the smile adults give you when they think you're weird, but you'll grow out of it."
Now this 27-year-old Washington state native lives in Japan where, after completing language training, she will begin a two-year assignment as assistant cultural affairs officer at the U.S. Information Service in Tokyo. She will develop programs for American "Speakers and Specialists," notable U.S. scholars and professionals whom USIA sponsors to present current issues in their field to foreign audiences and counterparts.
So much for growing out of it.
It took Jessica Davies a bit longer to decide on diplomacy. In junior high, a foreign service officer spoke to her class about the career, but the only thing Davies remembered about the job was you spent about three-fourths of your career overseas. After doing stints in Germany through AFS (American Field Service), a post-high school exchange to Spain and college time in Amsterdam, she remembered the junior high speaker who talked about the career where you lived overseas.
So, at 22, Davies applied for an internship with the State Department. The Department assigned her to work at the U.S. Mission to the European Union in Brussels. There she learned more about the roles State and USIA play abroad.
"At USIA, value is placed on cross-cultural knowledge, friendship and people contacts," she said, explaining why she decided to work for the agency. "With USIA, you have more flexibility to talk about different opinions within the U.S."
The ability to reach out to other people and other cultures also attracted Woodward to USIA.
"It really seemed like the most fun," she said. "Political (in the State Department) seemed fun, but only once you reached the upper echelons. USIA just seemed more interactive, more interesting, more challenging."
The first challenging step in becoming a diplomat is taking the foreign service exam the State Department and USIA offer on an annual basis. Due to budget reductions, the exam was not held the year Woodward wanted to take it. But when the 1996 exam time came around, she almost missed her chance.
In Japan working on her master's thesis, Woodward didn't make the deadline to take the exam there. Undeterred, she flew to the U.S. commonwealth of Guam, which followed a later deadline.
"The night before taking the test I was a basket case," she said. "I called my dad and woke him up to tell him I was nervous."
That same night, Davies didn't even think about what she would do the next day.
"I took the test while I was still in school, as practice," she said. "I figured I'd take it to see what it is was like, take a few years off from school, do grad work, then take it again. I didn't expect to pass. And here I am."
Now the 24-year-old is USIA's youngest foreign service officer. She will head to Syria next summer after receiving training in Arabic.
The odds of making it into the service are daunting. Between 11,000 and 13,000 people take the written exam each year. USIA and the State Department hire between 100 and 300 candidates, depending on their needs. Candidates who do well on the written test get asked to an oral exam.
Both women almost didn't believe it when told they passed the oral phase and would be called up sometime in the next 12 months to begin training.
"I had so many friends who had taken the exam and not made it that, to me, the exam was not a sure thing," Woodward said. "I was so shocked when I made it."
Although they have yet to experience "real" embassy life, the two new diplomats know what they want to accomplish overseas.
"I think you're doing a job that has intrinsic value," Davies said. "It's not a job you do for the money. You have to make a real commitment to what you do. Ultimately you have to believe the United States is a pretty good place, and [in] its values as well...And that the world will become a better place because of what we do."
Robin Holzhauer is a USIA foreign service officer. Prior to joining the agency in 1998, she worked as a journalist at the Northwest Herald, Ill., and CNI Newspapers, Wis. She holds a Master's in 20th Century American History from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
President Clinton greets villagers in Xiahe near Xi'an.
Presidents Clinton and Jiang debate during joint press conference.
President Clinton takes questions from student audience at Beijing University.
Presidential Public Diplomacy|
By Robert F. Holden
In the days following each of President Clinton's ground-breaking live addresses to the Chinese public during his visit to China and Hong Kong, commentators -- government and press -- wasted no time in analyzing their impact.
The June 27 debate between Presidents Clinton and Jiang at their joint press conference and the President's June 29 speech at Beijing University were extraordinary events, heard widely not only by the American public but by the Chinese people, according to Sandra Kristoff, senior director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Shirk called the decision by President Jiang to allow President Clinton to speak directly to the Chinese people at the press conference and in the Beijing University discussion with the students "a significant political event in China."
The President's communication strategy -- speaking directly to Chinese audiences at public, live-broadcast events -- is a form of public diplomacy that delivered America's message directly to the people of China, and exemplified the open communication that is at the heart of free societies.
But the President's public diplomacy efforts in China did not stop with his public pronouncements. There is a continuing effort that involves people-to-people exchanges -- cultural and educational programs to increase interaction between the two societies.
Summit achievements in this area include:
Newspaper editorials, while not always flattering, appreciated the significance of the President's public diplomacy efforts in China.
The Washington Post said:
The Christian Science Monitor said:
The Los Angeles Times said:
The New York Times said:
At the end of the nine-day visit, however, it was the President himself who probably put it best:
I don't think anyone who was on this trip could fail to appreciate the remarkable transformation that is underway in China, as well as the distance still to be traveled.
In the end, while the summit provided an impressive list of "deliverables" -- announcements of future cooperation between the two countries -- it was public diplomacy that turned out to be the key focus of the President's visit to China. The President's direct approaches to the Chinese public on three separate occasions led to the most comment about the trip in both the United States and China and offered the greatest opportunity for the visit to fulfill the President's aim of demonstrating the changes in China to the American people and to the Chinese themselves.
Related link: Asia Society on the China summit
An alternative assessment: from the Washington Post, July 28, 1998
people who join the service, Custin had a desire to travel
to different parts of the world, learn new languages and
communicate with other people..."
is such a large component of USIA...in the future, I think
all diplomats will get, or should get, public diplomacy
always told me I never met a stranger...When I looked at the
job descriptions, USIA jumped out at me because that's what
I had been doing all my life.'"
Around the World After 35:
By Robin Holzhauer
After 12 years in the business, the bridge story finally did it.
As a reporter and weekend anchor for a television station in Grand Rapids, Michigan., Dick Custin had become disillusioned with declining standards in television news.
"They wanted me to do a story about how this bridge wasn't safe," he said. "It had been there 40 years and in that time only two people had died on it -- and one of those was a suicide. But they wanted the 'dangerous bridge' story anyway."
He had to get out.
Then he met a United States Information Agency officer at a convention in New Orleans. They talked. By the end of the conversation, Custin decided the foreign service would be his next career.
Like many people who join the service, Custin had a desire to travel to different parts of the world, learn new languages and communicate with other people -- telling them about the views and culture of the United States. But in 1996, the year he took the written exam, Custin was 35. At a time most people think about paying the mortgage, angling for a raise and stepping higher on the corporate ladder, Custin chose to leave his home, take a pay cut and become the new kid in the embassy.
He isn't alone. The age of first-time government employees continues to rise. In fiscal 1997, the average age of just-hired government workers was 34.6. In Custin's USIA training class, four out of 11 people had been born before 1962. Changing lifestyles at a higher age presents challenges twentysomethings don't usually have to face -- worrying about schools for children, trying to sell a home or business, convincing a spouse or partner to leave a career behind and travel the world, taking salary cuts -- but more and more people have made the switch.
"I took a cut in pay, sold my house and moved across the country," said Sue Schultz, 38. "My friends thought I was nuts."
After several years in manufacturing management and time spent coordinating events for the musical and volunteer group Up With People, Schultz no longer felt happy going to work. During an event she organized for Up With People at the American consulate in Bermuda, she met a foreign service officer who told her she should join USIA.
She looked into the agency, thought her background complemented USIA's mission to inform and educate, and decided to take the test. When she got the registration booklet and looked at the sample questions, she didn't know if she could do it. It had been years since she took classes at Stanford University and they all related to engineering, not the economics, history and English she'd find on the exam. When she got to the test site, she felt a bit out of place.
"The average age in the place was just out of college," she said. "For me (the questions) required a lot of thinking because everything wasn't right on the front burner. I had to reach back and remember. I was very pleased when I passed, especially because there were all these 23-year-olds just ripping through the test and I remember thinking, 'Why can't I read any faster?'"
When Schultz also passed the oral phase of the exam, she had to choose between joining the State Department and USIA. After looking over each possibility, she chose USIA because of its emphasis on building a foundation of trust, in contrast to State's focus on implementing policy.
"Understanding is such a large component of USIA and that doesn't really enter into State's thinking," she said "Although, in the future, I think all diplomats will get, or should get, public diplomacy training because with the way things are changing, we'll all be out meeting people in the world."
Learning from Life
The age of newly-hired foreign service officers has risen over the years. Some people say that is because the oral phase of the exam tests skills you learn and hone only after experiencing the ups and downs of life. Kathy Bentley agrees. Before she took the exams Bentley worried she might not do well because she did not have a political science background, but she saw her 44 years as an asset.
"I really didn't think age was a factor," she said. It was a plus. I relied on all I garnered through the years (to pass the test)."
Like other new officers, Bentley gave up a good job and moved away from her home to begin USIA training. Her decision also means she will see less of her children, who both go to college in Kentucky. But they told her she should go for the career and have already made plans to join her in Panama at Christmas.
Although she grew up in era when society taught that men,not women,had the exciting and powerful careers, Bentley bucked that tradition. First, she sold newspaper advertising in college. Then, in the 1980s, she owned a business selling log homes, using her own home as a model so she could be with her children during the day. Most recently, she worked at the Mexican consulate in North Carolina. Through all of that she sang in bands -- rock, blues and country -- and garnered such a fan base she worked charity events, became the spokesperson for Image hair products and almost signed a record deal with RCA in 1988.
Her life experiences made choosing USIA easy, she said.
"My mother always told me I never met a stranger," Bentley said with a laugh. "When I looked at the job descriptions, USIA jumped out at me because that's what I had been doing all my life."
Bentley had another reason for joining the foreign service: honoring her father's commitment to the United States. Bentley's father was an Army sergeant. One of his assignments involved testing new parachutes and equipment. On what was supposed to be his last day on the testing detail, a freak windstorm hit just as he was about to land. The wind picked him up and crashed him, three times, into the ground. He stayed in a coma for four years before he died. Bentley was just 4 years old. Although she never got to know her father personally, everyone tells her she has his personality and spirit.
"He loved this country and really believed in what he was doing," she said. "I consider myself a patriotic person, I really do."
Despite being at an age when most people have settled down, Custin, Schultz, Bentley and many other new foreign service officers have decided to change their lives and learn new things. They're happy they made the switch.
"They say the average person goes through three careers in their life," Custin said. "I'm on No. 2 and I think I'll stop."
The recent bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa reminded the new diplomats of the danger inherent in the foreign service, but the terrorist acts have not dissuaded them from taking on the challenge.
"I have this card I've carried with me for a while now," Schultz said. "It has a chicken standing on one side of this long road and you open the card up and it says, 'Just do it.' Who needs a reason?"
Robin Holzhauer is a USIA foreign service officer. Prior to joining the agency in 1998, she worked as a journalist at the Northwest Herald, Ill., and CNI Newspapers, Wisconsin. She holds a Master's in 20th Century American History from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.Top of page
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