RealJobs: Bernadette Meehan

Hello, and welcome to my first blog!  I am very excited to share with the Boston College community a look at my life as a Foreign Service Officer, and at a typical day working as the Special Assistant to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.  The Foreign Service is a unique, fun, and rewarding career and lifestyle, and for people interested in public service or U.S. foreign policy, it is a career I highly encourage you to explore.  My job as a U.S. diplomat has taken me on a journey I never could have anticipated in my wildest dreams!  Over the past eight years I have lived in three countries while representing the U.S. government, and have traveled to almost a dozen more on official diplomatic business.

I joined the Foreign Service after working for seven years as a financial analyst on Wall Street.  I studied Political Science at BC, and while I enjoyed working in finance, I always knew I wanted to segue into foreign affairs.  My “aha moment” came when I read the cover story of the Boston College Magazine featuring then Under Secretary of State Nick Burns.  A Boston College alumnus himself, I was transfixed by the description of his career, and knew I had found the right path for me.  After passing the entrance exams and obtaining a Top Secret security clearance, I began my career at the Department of State.

While in A-100 – the orientation class for new U.S. diplomats – I received my first “bid list” – a listing of the assignments available around the world at the 256 U.S. embassies and consulates.  With postings available in every geographic region, it was a challenge to pick my top choices.  I submitted a rank order list of my choices, but since Foreign Services Officers agree to be available for service anywhere in the world, I had no way of knowing where I would ultimately be posted.  Assignments in the Foreign Service are based on a variety of factors, including experience, time in service, language ability, time needed to complete required training, needs of the service, and family considerations.  On “flag day”, our A-100 instructors lined up a row of miniature country flags, and waved them in the air as they called out the name of the person being assigned to that country.  Once all 92 of us received our assignments, we carried on the Foreign Service tradition of taking our mini flags to a local Washington pub that serves beers and snacks from all around the world, where we celebrated the incredible journey we were about to embark on.  The next day I began several months of training to prepare for my assignment as a Consular Officer at our embassy in… Bogota , Colombia !

Colombia is a fascinating country, and Bogota is a vibrant and exciting city.  As a Consular Officer in the Non-Immigrant Visa section, my primary responsibility was to interview Colombian visa applicants to determine whether they qualified for a visa to travel to the United States .  Each day had a routine, but we also learned to expect the unexpected each day as well.  Part of our job is to support Congressional delegations that visit a country on official U.S. government business.  In Colombia I served as the “control officer” for two U.S. Congressional delegations, and traveled to Cartagena – a magical city on Colombia ’s Caribbean coast – for one Congressional visit, and to Cali – a booming city in the Andes Mountains – for another.  Another responsibility of embassies and consulates is to provide assistance to U.S. citizens incarcerated abroad.  The State Department is committed to ensuring fair and humane treatment for American citizens imprisoned overseas, and as part of these duties, we visit Americans who have been arrested.  In Colombia, I visited a men’s prison in downtown Bogota to meet with an American who had been arrested for drug trafficking.  I also had a chance to join my colleagues in the Political Section to serve as an election monitor during Colombia ’s presidential election, traveling across Bogota to observe activities at polling stations.

Election monitoring in Colombia

After two years in Colombia , I volunteered to serve a tour in Iraq , and arrived in September 2006, amidst the height of the sectarian violence, and the beginning of the U.S. military surge.  As we flew into Iraq on a military cargo plane, we were issued PPE – personal protective equipment – that consisted of a bullet proof vest and helmet.  I lived in a “hooch” – a metal shipping container – that I shared with a fellow Foreign Service Officer.  We did our laundry in a communal trailer, ate in the military DFAC, and worked at the U.S. Embassy housed in Saddam Hussein’s former Republic Palace , on the Tigris River .  The work in Iraq was challenging, rewarding, and at times, staggeringly heart wrenching.  In Iraq , despite the numerous logistical challenges, I am proud to say we provided all of the consular services our colleagues around the world provided, though we often had to find creative ways to do so.  During my time in Baghdad, I flew in a Blackhawk helicopter to reach an American who had been detained; I traveled to Kurdistan in a cargo plane to help repatriate the remains of an American civilian who had died (a non-combat related death); and I assisted with the evacuation of an 18 year old American citizen in Basrah who was targeted by insurgents.

Following my tour in the Consular Section, I worked for several months as a Special Assistant to Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.  Our team worked in close coordination with the team of the newly appointed Commanding General –David Petraeus – as we sought political solutions to stem the violence wracking Iraq at that time.  I have visceral memories of my service in Iraq – both good and bad – but feel that without a doubt it was an experience that has forever changed how I view things in life – both personally and professionally.

Bernadette boarding a cargo flight in Iraq

When I left Iraq in September 2007, I returned to Washington , D.C. to study Arabic for nine months at the Foreign Service Institute in Virginia , in preparation for my tour as a Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Dubai.  The United Arab Emirates is a mesmerizing country, and serving as the public face of the U.S. government for two years was a wonderful experience.  My job was to explain U.S. foreign policy to local audiences, promote U.S. culture, and facilitate exchange programs like the Fulbright and International Visitors Leadership Program.  One of my favorite experiences was spending time with participants in the English Access Micro Scholarship Program, which we provided grants for Emirati high school students to study English.

Bernadette with English students in the UAE

I returned to Washington in 2010 to work as a Line Officer, advancing Secretary Clinton’s overseas travel and traveling with her as a part of “Plane Team” – the team that prepares her daily briefing papers when she is overseas.  I advanced the Secretary’s trips to South Korea (including to the DMZ), Kosovo , Cambodia , Mexico , Bahrain , and her participation in the United Nations General Assembly in New York .  As part of Plane Team I accompanied her to Yemen , the UAE, Oman , Qatar , Germany , South Korea , and Japan .

After ten months I was asked to join the Secretary’s direct office, to become one of her two Special Assistants.  It’s a job where no two days are the same, though I hope through my blogs this week to give you a sense of the breadth of issues we cover in any given week, and even more importantly, the passion and fun we have doing our jobs!

For anyone interested in learning more about becoming a Foreign Service Officer, you can visit:  http://careers.state.gov/officer.  For anyone interested in other opportunities to work for the Department of State, you can visit the Department’s career web site:  http://www.state.gov/careers/.

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