Christel Oomen - US Foreign Service Officer in Armenia
What does your job entail? Starting next month, I’ll be a U.S. Foreign Service Officer—in other words, an American diplomat. As a generalist, I’ll work on a variety of issues in diplomatic missions all over the world to advance U.S. political and economic interests. Because the situation is different in every country, we mostly learn on the job, but also through short-term trainings and language instruction; so far, I’ve done six months of Spanish and seven months of Russian language training. The focus of my career will be on consular work, which means I’ll be applying U.S. immigration law, adjudicating visas, providing services like passports and birth certificates to American citizens, visit prisons, and much more. The U.S. has over 270 diplomatic missions and I expect to spend most of my career overseas, but I’ll also work in Washington DC.
What did your career path look like? When I graduated IRIO in 2009 I was a human rights project officer at the Dutch Embassy in Nigeria, basically extending my internship there. I didn’t know where I wanted to work, so I decided to stay abroad to gain work experience and learn a new language. Once I met my husband (an American diplomat), I started to work in U.S. embassies. I currently work in the human resources department in Yerevan, and my work is mostly administrative in nature. Before, I worked in the political section, doing lots of research, analysis and reporting. My favorite job was being a refugee coordinator in Pakistan, where I advocated for refugees’ rights and visited and monitored U.S.-funded humanitarian projects in Afghan refugee camps. I also worked as a project manager for a small development consultancy company for a while. For that job I did lots of travel, business development, and proposal writing. It was very interesting but once I had kids I wanted to work for the government again because it’s more stable and meaningful to me.
What are the biggest challenges in your job? Diplomats don’t see their friends and family back home much, and for me it’s probably worse because mine are in the Netherlands. Also, becoming a U.S. citizen and living among Americans was hard at the beginning—adapting to a new culture is hard, even if the norms and values are similar to your own. You always miss your food, language, humor, etc. Another challenge is that as a diplomat you’re not really a private citizen unless you’re on vacation; in the “host country” you basically represent your country 24/7.
What did IRIO teach you that you can now use in your job? For me, studying IRIO was mostly an intellectual exercise; learning about different perspectives, history and politics, and critical thinking. I learned a little bit of language and writing, but most of these skills I developed afterwards—maybe because I wasn’t a focused student, or maybe because I learn better in the “real world.” For example, truly mastering new languages and writing reports people actually want to read. I also worked and volunteering for lots of different organizations in both the private and the public sector. I basically used all of my twenties to learn new things and now I finally feel ready to settle down in a job.
Was this the kind of job you imagined to have when you started studying? I always liked the idea of being diplomat, but I didn’t think it was achievable. I generally knew little about international jobs during my studies and I felt pretty lost. I didn’t have much confidence in the labor market either because I graduated in the midst of the economic crisis. But I still wanted a truly “international” job, so I imagined volunteering, or working for minimum wage, at an NGO in Latin America and learn Spanish. So when I met my husband and he was sent to Uruguay, it fit my plan. But instead of volunteering I got a great job at the U.S. Embassy—something I’d never imagined! What advice would you give to yourself as a student? As a student, I worked as a bartender for five years. If I could do it over again, I’d try to find a job that teaches more transferable skills and is more relevant to the field of IR. At the same time, I would tell my younger self to worry less about getting ahead and having a fancy job title—I realized quickly that it’s most important for me to learn something new and do something useful. Also, I realized during the exams and interviews to become a diplomat that hiring officials weren’t really interested in my “experience with the UN” or the fact that I had published articles. They just wanted to know what kind of skills and motivation I brought to the table, and assess if I would be nice to work with (Americans care a lot about “interpersonal skills”). So relax and do what you care about!
This article has previously been published by Checks & Balances, Volume 20, Issue 2, 2019