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Liberal arts, languages, and diplomacy: Lessons from the diplomat-in-residence

Ken Chavez - Diplomat

Kenneth P. Chavez, the U.S. Department of State diplomat-in-residence for the Southwest, is based at Arizona State University and available to answer questions about careers in diplomacy.

May 07, 2018

Editor's note: Kenneth Chavez is the diplomat-in-residence for the Southwest region. Based at ASU, he hosts events introducing students to the work of the U.S. Department of State and diplomacy across the world, including opportunities such as the Consular Fellows Program. Here, he explains the benefits of a liberal arts education in pursuing a career in embassies and consulates where the United States in building relationships. 

A common question I receive from students interested in becoming a U.S. diplomat is, “What degree should I get to become a foreign service officer?” There is a common misconception that diplomats need to have degrees in politics or international affairs. In fact, the diplomats that represent you at our embassies and consulates all around the world come from very diverse education backgrounds. People from all walks of life pursue careers as diplomats, and many of my close friends in the foreign service are former engineers, businesspeople, teachers, soldiers and academics, just to name a few. Many of us — I’d go so far as to say, most of us — have liberal arts degrees.

If you look at the criteria that the U.S. Department of State uses to evaluate candidates in the foreign service hiring process (we call them the 13 Dimensions, which you can find on, you’ll see that so many of these qualities are directly associated with a liberal arts education — oral and written communication, analytical skills, judgment, integrity, interpersonal skills and organizational skills, to name a few.

In my case, for example, I’m from El Paso, Texas, went to the University of Texas at El Paso and then the University of Texas at Austin, where I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English with a minor in philosophy, and later with an Master of Arts in English and creative writing. The skills I developed as a liberal arts major serve me every single day in my career as a diplomat, which has taken me from Guadalajara to Beijing to Washington, D.C., and most recently to Managua, Nicaragua.

In my first two assignments as a foreign service officer, Guadalajara and Beijing, I served as a consular officer where I was responsible for adjudicating visa applications and providing services to U.S. citizens. When someone from another country applies for a U.S. visa, either for tourism, business or work, they go to an embassy or consulate to submit their application and be interviewed to receive their visa, as required by U.S. law. Our job as consular officers is to interview the person, in their native language, to determine if they qualify for the visa. Sound easy? It’s not. We have to ask ourselves: Does the individual qualify for the visa they are requesting? Are there any indications of fraud? Is this their true purpose of travel? Do they have a criminal history or other possible ineligibilities? In addition to foreign language skills, strong interpersonal and analytical skills are needed to effectively make a determination of eligibility. There is no such thing as an easy or routine visa interview.

But visa interviews weren’t all I did in those first two tours. As a representative of the United States in Mexico and China, I gave presentations to students and business organizations, wrote speeches and was interviewed on TV and radio, first in Spanish and later in Chinese. My most recent assignment was in Managua, where I was the deputy consul general and fraud prevention manager for the Consular Section. In my role as fraud prevention manager, I spent a considerable amount of time working with local press (TV, radio and print) talking about our visa processes and policies and trying to educate the local public about scams and fraudulent document vendors that targeted visa applicants. All of this was done in Spanish.

Consular is only one of the career fields in the foreign service. There are many career tracks, and all need to use foreign language skills on a daily basis.

Political officers engage with foreign government officials and provide Washington with detailed analyses of political events in their host country. Economic officers work with host governments and the business community on a wide range of economic, trade, energy, science and technology issues. Public affairs officers engage government officials, the academic community, civil society and the press to promote mutual understanding and also manage important cultural exchange programs, such as the Fulbright program and International Visitor Leadership programs.

Our management officers keep the embassy or consulate itself running smoothly, engaging with local service providers to keep the lights on, the networks running, the buildings secure and, most importantly, ensure the local employees (the cornerstone of every operation) are paid on time. Our regional security officers liaise with host country police and security services to ensure our people and facilities are safe and help us to provide important guidance to U.S. citizens traveling overseas. These, and others, are all critical diplomatic functions, and in all of these jobs we are relying on the kinds of skills you are developing as a liberal arts major. 

Though there is no requirement that a candidate for the foreign service be fluent in other languages, candidates who speak other languages can qualify for additional points in our hiring process.  

Most foreign service officers are trained to speak the language of the country they are assigned to before they depart for post. Our language training is conducted at the foreign service Institute in Arlington, Virginia, a small campus where, in addition to language training, we receive management, leadership and tradecraft training. Language learning is also an ongoing process throughout our careers. For example, this summer I’ll start looking for my next assignment after my current posting as diplomat-in-residence concludes. One of the first things that I’ll need to decide when narrowing my choices for my next assignment will be which country, and which language, I want to pursue next. Do I go back to a Spanish-speaking post? Further develop my Chinese language skills? Or do I consider learning a new language and working in a part of the world that I’ve never been to before? At this point the possibilities are limited only to our 270 embassies and consulates.

Diplomacy is all about building and maintaining relationships. Relationships between people, between countries and between cultures. When explaining diplomacy to younger audiences, I use the simple analogy of making friends. Diplomacy in its most basic form is quite simply making friends. How do we make friends? We talk to people. We ask questions. We share ideas. We discuss what we have in common. How effectively we communicate to each other, either individually or to groups, is significant and the most important part of what we do as diplomats.  

As the diplomat-in-residence for ASU, I’m here as a resource to talk students through all the career options available, now or in the future. We have internships, graduate fellowships and many career options available. If you speak Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic or Chinese, or are working toward fluency in those languages, please take a look at the Consular Fellows Program. This is a wonderful opportunity to use those language skills, get valuable experience overseas, and it is something that you can start applying for at the beginning of senior year.

I can be reached at DIRSouthwest@state.govI hope to hear from you!

— Kenneth P. Chavez, U.S. Department of State Diplomat-in-Residence for the Southwest