As part of a drive to increase diversity among foreign service officers, Ambassador Arnold Chacon, Director General of the United States Foreign Service, is coming to El Centro on Tuesday afternoon to reach out to students and affinity groups on Department of State careers. Born and raised in Colorado, Ambassador Chacon emphasized that his upbringing did not foreshadow a career that would take him to Guatemala and Spain. The Stanford Daily took the chance to ask the Ambassador for his take on the Foreign Service recruitment process, the diversity focus and the greatest misconceptions about the job.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): Could you give us a brief outline about your career, including some of the places you have been and some of the work you have been involved in?
Arnold Chacon (AC): I entered the United States Foreign Service in the early 1980s. Actually, at that time, it was against the backdrop of the Cold War. I chose what we call the political cone, or the political career track. Foreign Service officers are divided into five tracks — political, economic, public diplomacy, management and consulate.
I came into the Foreign Service because I was very much interested in an international career, in making a difference. I initially thought I wanted to be a medical doctor, so I did volunteer public health work in Central and South America. That’s where I met U.S. diplomats and aid workers. I was very intrigued by the work they did.
My career’s taken me to the United Nations, Latin America and Europe. We change jobs every three years, so before I came back to Washington, I was U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala for three years. And again, we have a very interesting agenda there — promoting democratic institutions and inclusive economic development.
TSD: What do you think is the single most important quality in a foreign service officer? What qualities, training or experiences does the Foreign Service look out for?
AC: When we look for candidates, we assess for knowledge, intelligence and other skills like judgment, integrity, resourcefulness and especially written communication skills — kind of a well-rounded person, very curious and very good at interpersonal skills. It helps if you have overseas experience, and speaking as a former Ambassador, we have diverse teams.
And we’re diverse in every sense of the word — not only ethnicity and race, but academic tracks. We have lawyers and journalists and scientists in the Department of State; some went on to have second careers, some just changed early on. But what we have in common is emotional intelligence, curiosity and resilience.
TSD: Would you say that the Foreign Service is actively seeking to increase the diversity among its officers?
AC: Absolutely. That’s a big part of the reason why I’m here [in the Bay Area]. It’s simple — I’m head of Human Resources, and what we try to do is recruit people from a wide variety of backgrounds. We are the face of the United States to the world, and we want our department to represent us in all our richness. In Guatemala, people looked at us very closely in terms of values and what we’re promoting — our message resonated more clearly because we had a diverse team.
It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do — diversity engenders creativity.
TSD: What sorts of underrepresented groups are you reaching out to specifically?
AC: Ethnic, gender, LGBT, disabled — really any underrepresented group. We’re also certainly looking for academic diversity as well; we’re looking for a variety of different talents.
TSD: Which groups would you say are currently underrepresented in the Foreign Service?
AC: The traditionally underrepresented groups, such as Hispanics, African-Americans. We’re certainly not happy with where we are in terms of percentages of workforce, but our hiring has more than doubled in the last 10 years of those particular groups. Our hiring in 2004 was at the rate of about 4.5 percent; we’ve doubled that to 9 to 10 percent [for Hispanics], and even more for African-Americans. That is a key part of the demystifying we’re doing, which involves going out and talking about the fact that minorities have options, and we want to encourage them to consider public service careers.
TSD: What would you say is the biggest misconception about the Foreign Service?
AC: The biggest misconception about us is we’re an elitist country club, mostly white males and pinstriped suits and cocktail parties. I’m not sure that was ever the case, definitely not the case now. People are very strategic and operational. We work in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan. Over 1,000 Foreign Service employees at any given time are working in unaccompanied posts that are too dangerous for them to take their families with them. It’s increasingly expeditionary, but it’s evolving all the time. It’s not what it might have been 20 years ago, and that’s the most interesting part of it. You’re constantly growing and facing new challenges and developing skill sets.
TSD: What exactly is the Foreign Service’s relationship with the political side of affairs? For example, how would the upcoming elections affect things on the ground?
AC: We’re a professional core; we serve whatever administration that is elected by the American people. It’s hard to guess what a different perspective might be from a new administration, but suffice to say that in my experience, there is not a lot of variation in foreign policy and approaches to foreign policy by different administration.
For example, we need Portuguese speakers because, starting in 2009 or so, an incredible number of Brazilians wanted to visit the U.S., and because of [our increasing trade relationships with] China there is more demand for Mandarin. These things are all pretty constant through administrations, but certainly the world is more and more global and we hope to take advantage of that.
Contact Fangzhou Liu at fzliu96 ‘at’ stanford.edu.