When U.S. president John F. Kennedy famously called on America’s youth to “ask what you can do for your country” in his inaugural address on January 20, 1961, Linda Cheatham was among those in her generation who responded.
Growing up at the heart of the U.S. space program during the Kennedy years, Cheatham developed a strong commitment to public service at an early age and went on to serve as a U.S. diplomat in four continents. Now based at Tufts University, she is charged with helping the State Department recruit a new generation of diplomats in New England, and is a sought-after resource for students at The Fletcher School. Cheatham says she sees the same ethos of service embodied in the applicants more than 50 years after Kennedy’s address.
Cheatham is one of the 16 Diplomats in Residence (DIR) located around the United States. Her job is to use her experience as a career Foreign Service Officer to provide guidance to those in the New England area interested in working for the State Department. Since August 2012, she has been shuttling between Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont to promote awareness about the Department and help ensure that the United States sends its best minds abroad in service of its interests. Last week, she spoke to us about her work as well as the opportunities and challenges for diplomats today.
What are your responsibilities as a DIR for New England?
My assignment involves a variety of responsibilities. These include guiding potential candidates through the Foreign Service exam application process, engaging in outreach to students, professionals and the community to promote awareness about the State Department, and representing the Department at information sessions and career fairs. Although this means I am sometimes on the road quite a lot, I am very much available to the Fletcher community.
How have your experiences helped prepare you for this role?
I spent 31 years working for the State Department before this, in a career spanning four continents, so that gave me a fairly broad idea of how it works. I was also the coordinator of the DIR program in Washington, D.C., in my last posting, which prepared me well for this role and made me realize that I really enjoy this aspect of the job.
How has your time here been thus far and what are your impressions of the Fletcher community?
It’s everything I want it to be. I am constantly amazed by the rich and diverse experiences Fletcher students have even before applying to the Department. On the Fletcher D.C. career trip, I was impressed at just how extensive the alumni network is, and I am also impressed by the spirit of the Fletcher community, which places a premium on collegial support. I am familiarizing myself with the Fletcher curriculum, but I think its interdisciplinary nature is a very good thing because it allows students to integrate issues and see the big picture.
What kind of people does the Department look for, and have you noticed any differences in new pools of applicants relative to the past?
The Department looks for “13 dimensions” which are listed on our website and which include composure, cultural adaptability, and good oral and written skills. Looking at the more recent applicant pools, my colleagues and I are consistently impressed by the diversity, foreign experiences and deep commitment to public service we see. I grew up at the heart of the space program during the Kennedy years, and it is nice to see that the same ethos of “ask what you can do for your country,” and the same desire to work for the common good internationally, is still very much alive today.
What are some of the challenges of working as a diplomat, and do you have any advice for those seeking to go into this career path?
The job does come with its share of challenges, whether they are security concerns or the effects of moving on families. My advice for those who want to be on this career path is to know what you are getting into beforehand, and to be confident in your abilities and qualifications when applying. If you get to be a diplomat, you may not get rich, but you will have an interesting life and meet fascinating people.
What do you think the role of diplomacy is in our world today and what are the tasks for young American diplomats?
Specific tasks may change with the times, but the role of diplomacy is more challenging and multifaceted than ever. Moreover, every Foreign Service career is unique depending on the particular assignments one chooses and the circumstances at the time. I can’t look into a crystal ball and see with certainty what international crises and challenges tomorrow’s American diplomats will face, but I can assure those who may be interested in such a career that the experience may often be exciting, and that their careers will be uniquely rewarding, as mine has been for me.
-- Prashanth Parameswaran, Ph.D. Candidate
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