Amelia Island, FL—Now that graduation is finally here, you may be dreaming of finding a job that encompasses everything you want in a career: adventure, travel, challenge, growth, risk, and reward. The problem is, most jobs come up short in these areas. But if you’re determined to do meaningful work that’s full of excitement, the Foreign Service may be the right place for you.
For those who may not know, the Foreign Service is the corps of employees dedicated to representing America abroad and responding to the needs of American citizens living and traveling around the world. While not everyone is cut out for this line of work, says Vella Mbenna—who worked in the Foreign Service for 26 years—it is a great job opportunity for ambitious new graduates.
“Being a diplomat with the US Department of State demands intellect, courage, and a sense of adventure—not to mention an unshakable work ethic,” says Mbenna, author of Muddy Roads Blue Skies: My Journey to the Foreign Service, from the Rural South to Tanzania and Beyond (Muddy Roads Press, 2019, ISBN: 978-1-7327918-0-0, $16.99). “If this describes you, you may have what it takes to join the ranks of hardworking citizens making a difference in our global society.”
But make no mistake: Jobs in the Foreign Service are not easy to come by.
“In my opinion, they are one of the hardest government positions to obtain,” says Mbenna. “And once you’re doing the work, you’ll be challenged daily to push yourself and find out what you’re truly made of. You must have the right mindset and the right skill set—and acquiring them is absolutely worth it.”
Early in her life, Mbenna never suspected that she would someday work as a US diplomat with the Foreign Service. After getting her college degree, she wound up back in her hometown in rural Georgia with a young child and few career prospects. But staying put was not an option. Her wanderlust prompted her to apply for a position with the US Department of State, where she eventually became an information management officer (IMO) in charge of information technology (IT) and communications, working in places like Beirut, Uganda, and Tunisia.
There, among her primarily “male, white, Yale” colleagues, Mbenna (a minority three times over: black, Southern, and female) started the long journey to the top. Despite facing instances of insubordination, racism, sexism, and culture shaming, Mbenna worked her way up to level “01,” the highest-grade level you can earn in the Foreign Service—provided there is no desire to hang around for some years to see if you will be selected to join the cadre of senior, policy-level foreign affairs professionals.
For a self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie, the challenges, victories, and even the near misses Mbenna experienced were the very definition of a fulfilling career. Part memoir and part how-to success guide, Muddy Roads Blue Skies tells the remarkable story of Mbenna’s journey from the backwoods of Georgia to the far reaches of the globe.
If you’re ready to graduate and may be interested in a career in the Foreign Service, here are the skills and behaviors Mbenna says you should turn into habits right now:
Do the work—and more. Dutifully do your work every day, and do it well. And when your work is done, see if you can help someone else with theirs. Mbenna routinely went above and beyond throughout her career, including her courageous efforts in the aftermath of the 1998 bombing of the US Embassy in Dar es Salaam. Her contributions during this dangerous time even earned her a Heroism Award from the Department of State.
“My mother’s ‘hard work from dawn to dusk’ mandate, which I was raised with, shaped my professional work ethic,” says Mbenna. “The good news is, anyone can learn this skill with enough perseverance. Challenge yourself daily to not just show up for your work—whatever it may be—but come with a contagiously positive attitude that shows your gratefulness for the type of work you do. Rise to the occasion consistently, and soon it will become second nature, and people will take notice.”
Find a role model/mentor. Develop trusting relationships with colleagues—in the field or not—who can help guide and develop you in your career. Think of someone you admire whom you could learn from and ask them if they will offer you career guidance. The Department of State also has an excellent formal mentor program, which Mbenna highly recommends newer diplomats take full advantage of.
Don’t be afraid to share ideas. “Never sit around the table during meetings thinking you are too low in rank or too ignorant of the subject matter to contribute,” says Mbenna. “You would not be there if you did not have something to contribute. Meetings are the ideal time for discussing ideas; come prepared with at least one or two ideas or questions, and then communicate them. Around mid-career, I became tired of sitting in meetings and rarely contributing. So, my motto became: ‘If you think it, share it.’ It paid off for me, and it will for you too.”
Respect the chain of command. “I do not believe any leader wants to be second-guessed or challenged by a subordinate, especially not in public,” says Mbenna. “The leader is the leader for a reason. Respect the chain of command and insist on it regardless of whether you are the leader, the second-in-command, or the follower.
“Overstepping boundaries without being invited to, especially if it is not your project or post, makes for a rough ride and stressful work environment for the entire team,” she continues. “As someone who has served as a leader and follower in my career, I can confirm that the chain of command works when everyone follows it.”
Be strategic. Don’t leave your career up to chance, advises Mbenna. Think carefully about the path you would like to take, then plan your career trajectory accordingly. Keep in mind that every position and grade level you attain are stepping stones to the next one, so be on the lookout for opportunities to learn and develop while whole-heartedly contributing to the mission. Finally, remember that new skills can qualify you for more advanced positions, so seize every chance to acquire them.
Know when to lead and when to follow. The higher you climb in the Foreign Service (and in most other fields), the more leadership responsibilities you will have. Still, different positions require you to serve in different capacities. Sometimes you will be asked to lead, and other times you will be asked to follow. Learn to do both with ease—and be aware of when either is appropriate—and you will be more valuable to your team and organization.
“After having been a leader in previous roles, I accepted a position on a ‘hardship’ tour in Kabul, Afghanistan,” says Mbenna. “I went in knowing and accepting that this time I would be a follower, and I became a good one because of that mindset. I did what I was supposed to do, and I did it as specified with a smile. Keep in mind that whether you’re a follower or a leader, your work counts. Whatever role you find yourself in, it matters, so be sure to make it work for you.”
Be dedicated/be useful, even in bad conditions. Learn to stay on task even during chaotic times (whether the chaos is work-related or personal). Mbenna’s last Foreign Service assignment was in Tunis, Tunisia, several years after the uprisings of the Arab Spring. Even though the turmoil had resulted in staff reduction and a revolving door of temporary staff at the embassy, Mbenna never stopped working and striving to uphold her responsibilities—not even when a broken leg forced her to work from a hotel and home for several weeks while she recovered.
“Don’t hesitate to do more than your specific duties in calm and chaotic periods,” says Mbenna. “Pitch in and help others, even if they do not ask. If they do not need your help, they will tell you. You’ll never regret going the extra mile, because eventually it will pay off for you, even if it only brings a smile to your face or a good memory years later when telling your Foreign Service story.”
Know when to leave. “When it’s time to leave the Foreign Service, you will know it,” says Mbenna. “This comes at a different time for everyone. It could be a few years into your career, or you may stay until you reach the mandatory retirement age of 65. You might start feeling restless, unsatisfied, or unhappy at work; or missing your family and friends so much that it distracts you from your duties; or simply realizing that you’re ready for your next adventure. Regardless of what it is, pack your bags and leave before you are burned-out or forced to leave. I reached my desired rank and left on my own terms, and what a happy feeling that was!”
“If you want to succeed in a high-stakes work environment like the Foreign Service, you’d better be ready to put your heart and soul into it,” concludes Mbenna. “Be ready to work hard and go all in, and from there the experience acquired and skills you are sharpening each day will help you truly excel. Yes, there are easier careers out there, but few are as rewarding or exhilarating. So if you want it, dig deep into who you are, find your greatness, and let it shine every day.”
About the Author:
Vella Mbenna is the author of Muddy Roads Blue Skies: My Journey to the Foreign Service, from the Rural South to Tanzania and Beyond. She was born in the Holmestown community of Midway, Georgia, where she grew up with eight siblings and parents who instilled in her the important values that would set her on the path to success. Throughout her youth, Vella dreamed of escaping small-town USA and traveling the world. In 1989, that dream came true when she was offered a position with the US Department of State Foreign Service. During her highly successful 26-year career as a diplomat, Vella served with honor in 13 foreign countries as well as two tours in Washington, DC.