ASU honors education helped alum gain position with US Department of State
John Harkness says writing, communications and foreign language skills he acquired as an Arizona State University honors student helped him get to the position he now holds with the United States Department of State.
Harkness, who graduated from ASU in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in history with honors from Barrett, The Honors College, is a newly minted foreign service officer who will soon take up his first post at the U.S. embassy in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In addition to his undergraduate degree, Harkness earned a master’s degree in international economics from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in 2020.
As an economic officer, he’ll work on issues that are important to U.S. economic and policy interests; assist in building and maintaining positive economic and trade relations; develop relationships with economic figures in government, business, nongovernmental organizations, academia and multilateral organizations; and report and analyze economic conditions and trends.
“My experience at Barrett gave me a great base of preparation. Writing and communication skills are essential for almost any career path, and I started developing them both through (honors) classes and extracurricular activities,” said Harkness, who lists among his best experiences the time he served as an Honors Devil, giving informational tours to prospective ASU honors students and their families.
“Another thing that was so valuable for me in college was the opportunity to learn German. Learning a foreign language really helped lead to more opportunities that prepared me for where I am today,” he added.
Harkness capitalized on several opportunities to build his skills and prepare him for foreign service.
In 2017, he received a yearlong Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) Award to teach English in Graz, Austria. While there, he was a part-time student at Karl-Franzens-Universität, where he did research on refugee policy, national identity and foreign policy in Austria from 1945 to 1955.
In the summer of 2019, Harkness served as an international relations trainee at the Banque Centrale du Luxembourg in Luxembourg City, the capital of the western European country.
He was an international economics intern for the Group of Thirty, an international body of financiers and academics based in Washington, D.C., from September 2019 to May 2020.
In November 2020, he joined the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington, D.C., as an international trade specialist and held the post for nearly three years before taking his current position with the U.S. Department of State.
Harkness took time out from his busy schedule to share his thoughts about ASU and where he is now, as well as share a bit of advice for students interested in foreign service. Here is what he had to say:
Question: How did you decide to attend ASU and Barrett Honors College?
Answer: I am from Flagstaff, so I was already familiar with ASU. To be honest, at the start of my college search, I didn't want to stay in Arizona at all. But I got to know Barrett much better through my sister, who is a year older than me and decided to attend Barrett. It really was the "best of both worlds" pitch that sold me, that I could stay in state at a large public university with so many possibilities but still have a more personal experience in an honors college. I would not change my decision at all if I had to choose again.
Q: How did you develop an interest in foreign service? Why did you choose this line of work?
A: My interest in the foreign service began at ASU. I was a history major focusing on modern and contemporary history — that is, history to the present day — so I became much more interested in current events and international affairs due to that. That interest led to an internship in the U.S. Consulate in Frankfurt, Germany, during my junior year and I've been intrigued with that life ever since.
Q: What are some of the challenges you face in your work and how do you overcome them?
A: In general, from my experience working in government, the most challenges have been the result of trying to reconcile different opinions within an organization. Communication, empathy and learning to compromise are very important.
Q: What advice would you give to students who are contemplating a foreign service career? For example, how to prepare academically, professionally and personally.
A: Study a foreign language! There is a lot of talk about how AI will make studying languages obsolete or whatever, but studying languages introduces you to a new way of thinking and enables you to really immerse yourself in another culture. Knowing another language isn't required to join the foreign service, but you have to learn one once you're in, and knowledge of another language makes it much easier to learn a new one. You can learn many of the "soft skills" required to be a diplomat through many different courses of study, but a facility in languages is an important asset to have.
Professionally, be patient. Many foreign service officers come in with years of experience, and very few come in directly out of college. Look at opportunities to volunteer or teach English abroad, for example. I also got a master's degree, which is by no means necessary, but it opened the door to new opportunities and experiences.
And personally, be interested in the world around you. Read the news, read books about different subjects, watch shows from somewhere else, try food from somewhere else. You don't have to travel to engage with the world.
Barrett Honors College student Rebecca Smalley contributed to this story.