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Securing an Internship with the U.S. Department of State

Grant Blanton

On a morning in late September of last year, I found myself seated on the Washington, D.C., metro. The train was packed with people in business suits who were carrying briefcases and backpacks, people on their way to serve the United States in one capacity or another. Whether employed by the Department of the Treasury, Commerce, Homeland Security, or any of the other departments, agencies, or bureaus, all would play crucial roles in the functioning of the federal government that day, and in turn, the wellbeing of the nation as a whole. When the train stopped abruptly at the George Washington University/Foggy Bottom Metro Station, I straightened my tie, gathered my belongings, and headed to my respective office. For a period of ten weeks I would be one of the previously described individuals. This was the first day of my time spent as an intern with the U.S. Department of State.

The above paragraph might sound a bit dramatic, but the feelings, emotions, and expectations I had going into my experience as a State Department intern might not seem entirely foreign to several of you. Internships with the federal government provide excellent opportunities to narrow your focus and interests as an International Studies major, and often aid in solidifying abstract concepts discussed in class. The purpose of this article is not to delve into my responsibilities as an intern, rather to explain the process by which to secure and successfully complete an internship with the federal government, the Department of State more specifically.

I am both a Chinese major and Spanish minor, and I will graduate at the end of Winter Quarter 2012. For many students majoring in International Studies or a foreign language, the Department of State is often an appealing option in terms of employment. Foreign Service Officers are required to complete twoyear tours at U.S. embassies around the world and play a direct role in maintaining a diplomatically positive U.S. presence abroad. For this reason, I applied for an internship with the Department of State, the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs more specifically. This seemed to mesh well with my Chinese major, and I felt an opportunity to witness firsthand the innerworkings of the Department would help me determine whether or not a career with the Foreign Service would be best.

The initial application was relatively painless. Aside from my Statement of Intent, the information requested was fairly general, and I submitted it within three weeks. As the weeks went by, I heard nothing; I received no e‐mails or telephone calls regarding my application. I began to doubt the likelihood of being accepted, but at the last minute I received a tentative offer to intern with the Department. It was at this point that I began the most anticipated, and many times dreaded, portion of the selection process: being investigated in order to be granted the necessary security clearance.

For those who are unfamiliar with the purpose of a security clearance, in simple terms, it is a classification granted to an individual that measures the extent to which the federal government feels it can trust them. For interns or employees with the Department of State, there are three possible clearance levels: confidential, secret, and top secret. Based on the thorough investigation carried out by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, an applicant will be granted one of the three previously mentioned clearances; however, it is possible to be denied a clearance altogether. If you are applying for internships with the federal government, bear in mind that you will be required to go through the necessary investigations. Make sure your record is clean and that you have not used illegal substances in any capacity within the twelve months preceding your investigation. Drug use will almost certainly knock you out of the running.

The information covered during the investigation will include specifics regarding residences, employment history, foreign travel, and a variety of other topics. You will be required to report all foreign contacts (anyone residing in a foreign country with whom you have been in contact within the twelve months preceding the investigation), so it is wise to make a list ahead of time to streamline the process. You will also be requested to provide upwards of fifteen contacts who can verify the information reported on your security forms, and rest assured, the majority of them will be contacted. Once the process is complete, you will be notified of your clearance, and you will receive your official letter of acceptance.

Once my internship offer was made official, I accepted it without hesitation. It was at that time I began searching for housing in the D.C. area and pulling the funds together to make the experience possible (as a side note, many federal government internships, especially within the Department of State, are unpaid). Once in D.C., I realized how invaluable a federal government internship could be. I was not only gaining a deeper understanding in regards to the policy surrounding U.S.‐China relations, but I was witnessing it being made and carrying it out firsthand. It is for this reason I am currently pursuing careers within the federal government, and I hope to return to D.C. as soon as possible after graduation.