Every year, the United States State Department assigns senior Foreign Service Officers to the position of Diplomat-in-Residence (DIR). The DIR program is designed to help recruit Americans from diverse academic and professional backgrounds to join the State Department workforce. The OU College of International Studies has the privilege of being host to the US Diplomat-in-Residence for the central region of the United States — including Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota — and this year we’re excited to welcome our newly appointed DIR, Amanda Johnson.
“The role of the Diplomat-in-Residence is to improve the diversity of our workforce among underrepresented groups,” Johnson explains, noting that there are 16 DIRs working throughout the country. “For the State Department, underrepresented groups include people from the central United States or the west — in other words, not the coasts. It also includes women, minority groups that are underrepresented, LGBTQ community members and those with disabilities.” Johnson adds that all of the State Department’s careers are merit-based and that each applicant makes it on their own initiative. However, the DIR’s role is to boost awareness of Foreign Service careers, which increases the diversity of the applicant pool and the overall workforce.
Johnson’s main role as DIR is outreach — providing information, advice and assistance for those interested in Foreign Service careers. “I have information sessions, I attend career fairs — I recently attended the College of Journalism Career Fair, and in November I’ll be attending the Career Fair for International Careers,” she says. “Because I represent an area that covers five states, I’m often traveling or at meetings. But I post my open office hours on my Facebook page. Students can just drop by or arrange to speak with me in person. I do a lot of a phone calls as well, so I’m always available.“
Johnson herself is from the western United States (Montana), but she has wanted to work in an international field from a young age. She graduated from the University of Montana in 2002 with a BA in History and French (she speaks fluent French and Arabic, as well as intermediate German) and began a career with the US Foreign Service, earning an MA in Communication from Johns Hopkins University along the way.
Since joining the Foreign Service, Johnson has had the opportunity to travel the world, spending time in the Middle East, Europe and West Africa. She has worked predominantly in public diplomacy, which entails interacting with foreign publics via traditional and social media and promoting education and cultural programs and exchanges sponsored by the US State Department. One of Johnson’s most memorable Foreign Service experiences was in Lebanon, where as a Public Affairs Officer in 2011, she coordinated with embassy colleagues as Lebanon accepted a wave of Syrian refugees at the start of the Syrian civil war. Many of these refugees were in rural communities that didn’t have the infrastructure to support them, and Johnson was able to help implement a project supporting education access in these areas for refugees and Lebanese children alike. She has also worked in Algeria and Nigeria, and she was most recently stationed in Brussels, Belgium, where she served as Spokesperson and Deputy Public Affairs Advisor at the US Mission to NATO.
Though she’s lived all over the world, Johnson is excited to be here in Oklahoma — and her DIR work is near and dear to her heart. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” she says. “My brother and his family are in Oklahoma — he retired from the military here — and it’s just great to be back home. I served many times in Washington, which is always fantastic, but it’s nice to see other parts of the country and connect again.”
Johnson looks forward to meeting with people throughout the region as they begin to consider international careers themselves. Her advice for those starting out? Take advantage of any opportunities or experiences in your community or on campus that you can — especially if they foster leadership skills. “That could be study abroad, that could be internships, or it could [even] be working as a barista, or a shift leader at your job. It could be volunteering with a service organization, whether internationally minded or not. It could be belonging to student groups that are either engaged in international affairs or promote different initiatives.”
She emphasizes that there is no set path to a State Department career, and that students who perhaps can’t afford to travel abroad or participate in certain programs should not feel discouraged. “I would like to underscore that we look at the whole candidate,” she says. “The programs offered by the College of International Studies are fantastic and they really do help shape students and prepare them for future careers. But just because students haven’t had a traditional route, or because they couldn’t afford to do some of these programs, it does not mean that they’re not competitive for the Foreign Service. It’s taking the initiative to seek out those [other] opportunities [that matters].”
Interested in learning more about State Department careers? Start by visiting their website at careers.state.gov. Students wishing to speak or meet with Amanda Johnson can email her at DIRCentral@state.gov, call her at (202) 286-0184 or drop by her office hours (see Facebook).