By Mariah McCloskey
On September 27, the School of Diplomacy met with Shana Kieran, a Foreign Service Officer for the U.S. Department of State, which she described as the ‘diplomatic arm’ of the U.S. Government. She currently works at the Foreign Press Center at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, where she works with members of the international media covering U.S. policy.
She was inspired to join by a family friend who was a career Foreign Service Officer and would write her letters from his various posts and adventures around the world, including trains across Siberia, transatlantic ships, and remote locations in the Middle East.
As a child, she became enamored with the prospect of traveling the world as a job, but it was not until she was in high school—in the aftermath of September 11—that she realized she wanted to pursue a career with the U.S. government.
Thus, Kieran applied for the Foreign Service immediately after graduating, and now serves as a public diplomacy officer. She primarily works with journalists covering foreign policy, and also organizes cultural programs, academic exchanges, and engages with local people wherever she ends up.
In her words, her job consists of “extend[ing] the self beyond a narrow area of service.” This description aptly summarizes the past eight years she has spent traveling around the Middle East teaching people about the United States and assisting in any way possible. She cited a specific example during her time in Iraq, where she was able to speak with locals often; to her, such conversation is the “core of diplomacy.” Through open dialogue, Kieran felt she was able to better understand their thoughts, concerns, and fears during that time.
She has since made her way through over 40 countries since she joined the Foreign Service. While she stayed in some of those countries during her permanent residency, others were merely quick visits for lectures or events. “It’s a great way to see the world and still feel like you’re making a difference.” Kieran explained.
In addition to describing her work, Kieran also offered students tips on applying to join the Foreign Service.
Kieran described the beginning of the application process as simple; the first step is visiting careers.state.gov, Where interested applicants can learn all about the hiring process and the steps to becoming a U.S. diplomat. To her, the difficulty came during the subsequent three-step process that gets increasingly more difficult, which involves a written exam, group oral exam, and then one-on-one interview.
The written exam is roughly three hours and consists of a general knowledge and current events section, a short essay section, and an English knowledge and grammar section.
The group oral exam, according to Kieran, involves solving a task alongside six other applicants in front of a judging panel. The applicants are observed and then judged based on how quickly—and calmly—they solved the task. The panel looks for a diverse group of people who can “think clearly and work effectively.”
Finally, if an applicant is fortunate to pass the first two stages, there are one-on-one interviews. A judge will sit down with the applicant and have them go through scenarios to see how they think. “It’s kind of like a choose your own adventure [game]” Kieran reminisced, where judges are examining whether the applicant demonstrates “clear thought process[es]” while under pressure.
Once an applicant passes this final round, he/she is hired and sent on the first assignment to another country, without much choice as to which, for two years.
After three years, there is an opportunity to receive tenure-like status. Kieran told students that Foreign Service officers are lucky because after receiving tenure, they enjoy job security and opportunities for advancement. Alongside Foreign Service Officers, there are many career civil servants as well as political appointees who come and go with each presidential administration.
In regard to whether the change in administration affected her job, Kieran responded that although this is the first change in presidency since her hiring, many of her more senior coworkers remind the newer officers that change comes with every new administration, but the fundamentals of diplomacy remain the same.
Kieran said she will continue to do her job and work to the best of her abilities. “When I go to bed, I feel I do more good than harm.”