Problem Solvers Around the World

The Fletcher School sat down with Ambassador Don Heflin and the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomat in Residence for New England Michelle Kayser to discuss careers in diplomacy
Headshots of Ambassador Heflin and Diplomat in Residence for New England Michelle Kayser in front of a gray background

The Edward R. Murrow Center for Global Diplomacy has a long history of hosting diplomats and ambassadors in residence, and countless alumni from The Fletcher School go into careers in the foreign service around the world. The Fletcher School and Tufts University host the United States Department of State’s Diplomat in Residence for New England, who maintains a permanent office on Curtis Street.

The Fletcher School spoke with Ambassador Heflin and Diplomat in Residence Michelle Kayser about the value of a career in diplomacy and the traits and skills essential to the field. 

The Fletcher School: Thank you both for speaking with us. First off, what value have you found in pursuing a career in diplomacy? 

Ambassador Heflin: Every country needs the best diplomats it can get. I have served mostly in small countries and overseas where there's a lot of poverty, and the amount of difference we can make is incredible, even when you're in a place with small amounts of resources to bring to bear. 

Michelle Kayser: For me, it was all about—and continues to be all about—serving your country while representing who you and the people around you are authentically. What I love about the U.S. diplomatic system is that if you prove that you have the skills, traits, and experiences we're looking for, it doesn't matter your background, your family name, your connections, or your socioeconomic status––you can be a diplomat. 

Fletcher: What ways of thinking, frameworks, philosophy, or grounding principles are important for somebody to know if they work in the field? 

Kayser: I would say adaptability and flexibility have been critical. We have something called the 11 Dimensions in the Foreign Service; these are the traits and qualities we're looking for whether you want to be an engineer, a nurse, or a Foreign Service Officer with us. One of the traits we look for in our 11 Dimensions is something called critical judgment, being able to quickly assess the situation and what would be the U.S. interests in the situation: how would Washington, D.C. want us to respond? 

Heflin: To follow up on that, you have to be adaptable and flexible in terms of how you see the job as well. We change presidents every four to eight years, and we get a lot of changes in policy direction, particularly with significant policies, and you must be able to adapt to that. You may be posted to a friendly democracy like Cabo Verde, where I was ambassador one tour, and then your next posting could be in a very difficult environment. When I joined, Ronald Reagan was president. Think about all the changes the country’s been through politically since then; it was my job to roll with those changes every time. 

Fletcher: What kinds of challenges should people be aware of if they’re considering a career in diplomacy? 

Kayser: A lot of people are first attracted to this job because they like to travel, but it is quite different to suddenly realize that you are moving to a new country without a return ticket. You are going to miss a lot of Thanksgivings. You won't be there for birthdays. It can be really challenging to constantly be missing those connections back home. The flipside of that is you cannot possibly imagine the amazing experiences you will have overseas and the opportunities that will be afforded to you because of this job. 

Another challenge is that whether you agree with the policy or the U.S. Administration at the time, your job is to be a representative of the U.S. government. I think both of us have faced experiences where we are defending or asked to promote a policy that we don't necessarily personally agree with, but I am so proud that the Department of State has such a strong history of a respectful dissent. If you think we should be doing something differently, or a policy isn't where it should be, you can write a formal cable communication back to Washington, D.C. These are very public cables among our diplomatic corps, which Foreign Service Officers at embassies in over 191 countries can read. 

We need diversity of opinion in order to make informed policy and to think about the implications for all walks of life. When people say, “I’m not sure I could do this job, because I don't always agree with the politics or the Administration,” my response is, “Good, you shouldn't. We are paid to have critical judgment, to question, to make sure we're thinking through all scenarios and implications." 

Heflin: I think Michelle's got it exactly right. I call it the acid test. It's easy to represent your government when they're always right and everything's happy in your country. The tough job is representing it when you think they're wrong. I have had to represent policies that I felt were ill advised and weren't going to work out well for the U.S. in the long run. I've never been asked anything that offended my conscience. Had that happened, I would have resigned.

Fletcher: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the U.S. today, and what role can diplomacy play? 

Kayser: Every day when I read the newspaper, we hear stories about America being divided. For me, a challenge is how we represent all political affiliations, all backgrounds, all socioeconomic statuses. The way diplomacy can play a role in that, and how I feel like I'm currently actively doing that, is by recruiting people from all walks of life. That to me is the answer to the challenge. We still have plenty more work to do, but at the end of the day, the hope is that more Americans know what we do and realize the value of the U.S. Department of State and want to help us in our mission all around the world.

Heflin: I've learned so much from my colleagues over the years. One thing that's really struck me is that we come into the foreign service informed by our values that we developed beforehand, and they always guide us, but generally speaking, foreign service officers are not knee-jerk Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. They’re problem solvers. They like to look at a problem in the country they’ve been assigned to and ask, “How can we help them fix this? What's the best way to go without letting an ideology guide that?”

To learn more about student programs and career opportunities with the U.S. Department of State and the next event scheduled on campus, reach out to Michelle Kayser at 

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