Archive for September, 2009

Yo voy el Distrito Federal

Saturday, September 26th, 2009

One nice little tidbit I discovered in my prep for a trip to Mexico City tomorrow for the Western Hemisphere EducationUSA Adviser Conference is that the city is known to residents and those in the know as el Distrito Federal, or DF. Clearly I’ll seem like an old Mexico hand with this bit of knowledge on my side—until I try to say more and it’s clear my Spanish is terrible.

Anyhow, I’ll be down in DF all next week so posting will be light until I return. No tengo nada que declarar.

Not everyone thrives in the Peace Corps

Friday, September 25th, 2009

At the Georgetown Dean’s Lunch Seminar I spoke at on Wednesday, one of the participants, a freshman, asked if I thought a “gap year” between graduation and, in his example, law school would be beneficial. I responded that, while everyone is different, a year abroad after graduation before entering grad school was tremendously beneficial for me—not only because it allowed me to recharge my scholarly batteries, but also because it broadened me, allowed me an experience I may not have been able to have at any other time and that has helped me tremendously since, both personally and professionally. So yes, I said, I think a “gap year” can be terrific for many, especially if it is spent abroad gaining international exposure and language skills.

A young woman, a senior, followed up by saying that in her research into possible international opportunities following graduation, she was having trouble winnowing out those that might be right for her. For example, she said, should I do the Peace Corps, do a Fulbright, teach English?How do I know what’s right for me? After we discussed the difficulties of knowing what is “right” for her or anyone else, I brought the conversation back around to the fact that she had just lumped the Peace Corps and “doing a Fulbright” into the same category. I thought it was very important for her and the other students to realize first, “doing a Fulbright” does not mean just one thing—there are many different ways to be involved with Fulbright.

But second, I said, it seems to me that the Peace Corps is not just another abroad experience. Though I wasn’t a PC volunteer, I know many who were, and from what they’ve told me, the Peace Corps is a very specific, and often very difficult, experience, one that is not right for everyone. I relayed to them the story of someone I know who, despite being one of the more idealistically gung-ho people I’ve ever met, just resigned his Peace Corps position a year and a half early. His reasons for resigning were: he wasn’t doing the work he wanted to do; he didn’t believe he was effecting any positive change; he was not enjoying the culture he was living in; and he no longer wanted to, in his words, “help reinforce a system that only hurts the people I want to help.”

While I didn’t quite know how to interpret this reasoning, again not having been a PCer myself, a good friend who completed the Peace Corps in a similar region wasn’t terribly surprised: “There are inevitably those who thrive and those who quit. The Peace Corps isn’t for everyone.”

If you’re interested in the Peace Corps, try to talk to as many people as possible who have done it before. Get a clear picture of what it really is. Because the Peace Corps is not just “going abroad,” and it’s not for everyone.

The power of the interwebs

Friday, September 25th, 2009

Back in June I posted, a bit randomly for a blog on international careers, about a Craigslist housing scam I’d come across while looking for apartments in DC. Though I managed to give the topic a career slant, I wrote about it mainly because I was short on actual career topics at the time, plus I thought my brush with the scam was interesting/funny/a bit scary that someone might actually get sucked by it (I knew it was a scam right away, but even so, I still tried to convince myself it wasn’t, the apartment being advertised looked so amazing). So I posted and didn’t think much more about it after that.

Then, in early August, a reader commented on the post, saying she’d come across the same scam, just with some details changed, which she provided. Then another commenter did the same, then another and then another. And it’s still going—another comment came in this morning—with each person relaying their own brush with the scam and posting the relevant details to help others avoid it. Clearly each commenter Googled the fake name of the scammer and the details given to find out if the Craigslist offer was too good to be true. Commenters may have been disappointed when coming across my post and its thread to find it was indeed a scam, but they were also relieved that they’d been able to verify it was too good to be true and they hadn’t gotten sucked in.

No larger point here, other than that I’m happy that a throwaway post for me has turned into something of a public service for those out there apartment hunting on Craigslist and trying to avoid the scams that seem more prevalent everyday. Though I’m not really sure how to feel about the fact that an item completely unrelated to the subject I usually write about has become the single most commented-upon Working World post ever. I guess I’ll take my audience any way I can get ‘em.

I’ve said I don’t believe in mentors…

Friday, September 25th, 2009

…and now I’m officially one myself. At least according to American University.

As of last week’s kick-off ceremony, I’m now an alumni participant in the AU School of International Service mentoring program, and thus a mentor to one lucky young senior in SIS—which is a bit ironic given that I wrote in Working World about my hefty ambivalence toward the concept of mentors. One reviewer of the book took this ambivalence to mean that I don’t believe in mentors at all—that I completely reject the concept—which I think overstates things. It’s more accurate to say that I’ve never been completely comfortable with the concept, nor have I actively sought out any mentors, or ever imagined myself as one.

But here I am. Not only as an official mentor myself, but also pointing out in events we do for Working World how my view of the concept seems to be evolving over time. While I still don’t love the “mentor-protege” terminology, I’ve at least come to see that I do in fact have mentors in my life and that a mentor doesn’t have to be someone you seek out to give that title and fulfill that “role.” Rather mentors can and should be those to whom you naturally gravitate—relationships that form organically on the basis of mutual interest and respect, nothing that is forced or artificial.

Which I realize is a little bit contradictory to my participation in a formal mentoring program, which are by nature a bit forced and artificial. But I’m looking forward to it nonetheless. In our initial meeting, my AU senior, as I’ll call her (I refuse to call her my protege), and I seemed to be on the same page. We both admitted we’re “not really sure how this works” and that we’d just play it by ear, keep it fast and loose, and see how things went. We’d be natural and not force anything. I think that’s the right way to go.

More updates from my trials and tribulations as an AU mentor as things evolve…

Goals v. gut — Dean’s Lunch Seminar at Georgetown

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

I had the privilege yesterday of heading back to my former employer, Georgetown University, to participate as a speaker in a College Dean’s Lunch Seminar, a project I actually worked on during its inception a few years ago. The purpose of the seminars is to get Georgetown grads, as well as other folks working in DC (like me), to sit down in an informal setting with students and talk careers—and generally reiterate that your college major in no way defines your career path and, besides, career paths are never straight anyway. In giving a snapshot of my own career, I felt as though I was able to convey this message quite clearly. One participant, a junior about to head off to study abroad, wrote me later and confirmed this impression: “Your talk today really reassured me about having an open mind concerning my future,” which I think is a nice way of saying, “It’s nice to hear from someone else who had absolutely no idea what he wanted to do and didn’t end up in a gutter.”

During the course of our discussion, this same young woman, the junior, worried about her lack of focus and her lack of goals. She spoke of how she was incredibly laid back about her career path, preferring instead to experience things and see where they take here, but was feeling constant pressure to “get it together.” She felt like maybe she should set some goals, impose some direction on herself.

I responded maybe, but I also cautioned against setting goals just for the sake of it, only because you feel you have to in order to prove something to someone (parents, professors, others). To me, following your instincts and passions—listening to yourself and going where you are drawn—can be far more effective and rewarding than setting arbitrary goals you’re not even sure you want to reach. I don’t mean to downplay the idea of setting goals and striving for them should you truly know what you want. But when you’re like this young woman, or another young woman with the self-described problem of having “too many interests to narrow down,” it’s far better to listen to what your gut is saying rather than try to live up to what others are telling you. As my former colleague and the organizer of the lunch, Tad Howard, said, at some point you forget about the need to please or impress others and you find you consider yourself “successful” because you’re doing what you want to do.

A great lunch all around and many thanks to my fantastic former boss, College Dean Chet Gillis, for inviting me back.

UPDATE: Tad has admonished me that this post didn’t mention perhaps the best part of the seminar: that he eschewed the normal lunch fare of sandwiches and instead ordered us hot turkey—which was not only tasty, but also classy.

Rock Star in Dhaka

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

Follow the trials and tribulations of a 25 year-old Foreign Service officer currently stationed in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (She’s kind of a big deal.)

The Metro: where people sometimes extend random acts of kindness and more often say dumb things

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

I was on the Metro last night heading home from a dinner at Sherry’s house in honor of Giles Scott-Smith*, a funny and engaging British scholar based at Leiden University in the Netherlands, when I overheard a young man and woman near me talking about studying abroad. The young man said:

“You know, the best thing about study abroad was…”

At this I perked up and listened for what I thought might be a juicy, overheard-on-public-transportation endorsement of study and travel abroad.  He continued:

“The best thing about study abroad was driving my advisor crazy. At least that was the best thing for me.”

Fair enough. At least he got something out of it, I guess. Unfortunately I didn’t hear any more of his trenchant international insights, as the train pulled into my stop. As a pack of us were waiting for the doors to open, a different young man asked a different young woman why she was holding a huge stack of folders in her arms, each one branded with the name of a different university (I saw Yale and Johns Hopkins on top).

“I was just at a graduate school fair,” she replied.

“Oh,” he said. “I’m looking for grad programs in international studies. Who organized it?”

“,” she said. “Here, you can have this.” She handed the young man a flyer of information about the fair. “Go to the website. There’s lots more information about schools.”

“Thanks,” he said. They smiled and we all got off the train.

Ah, the randomness of public transportation, where international careers begin and reflections on international experiences apparently tend to be rather shallow.

*Among other thing, Giles has turned his scholarly attention to the International Visitor Leadership Program.  A few of his articles, on Margaret Thatcher and Nicolas Sarkozy’s experiences in the U.S. as young politicians, are in the NCIV library [scroll down to find them] and here’s his book on the IVLP from 1950-70.

The international in North Dakota, ctd. again

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

Sherry pops up again in Minot, this time in a KFYR TV spot covering her visit to North Dakota and giving a nice Working World plug. [No embedding capabilities, so head over to the KFYR website to watch.]

Life after JET—

Thursday, September 17th, 2009, a site for the Japan Exchange and Teaching program alumni “freelance and professional community,” profiles one its members, Shannan Spisak of the Institute of International Education. Shannan describes her career since her teaching abroad experience and how she found her way into interesting international positions:

After I came back from JET, I moved to New York City with a friend and worked at a private Japanese company for 2 years. I decided to switch careers to move into the international arena; the United Nations in particular interested me. I went on a number of informational interviews with fellow former JETs working in the field and they all recommended graduate school. I decided to study Peace Education and International Exchange at Teachers College, Columbia University. In order to finance my education, I took a job working as Assistant to the President of Barnard College while attending classes part-time. During the process of completing my M.A., I realized I had grown more interested in the education component of my degree than its relation to UN work. Consequently, my focus shifted towards seeking a career in international exchange in higher education.

[Now] I work at the Institute of International Education (IIE) in the Global Scholarships Division. The IIE is a 90 year-old non-profit organization that runs over 200 programs around the world, including the Fulbright. I manage three international scholarship programs through the GE Foundation and the Chubb Insurance Foundation. I organize the review and selection of applications, notify finalists, award grants, and manage special components of the scholarships such as Leadership Development Seminars and Career Workshops. I also coordinate the global communication and program initiatives between our offices in each of the participating countries. Our programs serve undergraduate and Masters students in 14 countries, chiefly studying science and business. Right now, I’m looking into new ways of managing our student alumni network – which aligns with what I’ve been working on for JETAANY as Alumni Database Manager.

Jetwit also has job postings and other career resources for JET alums.

The beauty of a beat-up passport

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

I was looking through my boss’s passport the other day, as he had it out doing paperwork for a Russian visa. Now there is a beautiful passport: beat up beyond belief, packed with additional pages making it fat like an overstuffed wallet, and full of more stamps and visas than I’ve ever seen, easily from 40 or 50+ countries: India, Russia, Brazil, Ukraine, China, Peru, Thailand—and those are just a sample from the past two years. I hope mine looks like that someday.

[And I've got a long way to go, a fact which was not helped when I got a shiny new passport last year with the fancy embedded radio frequency identification chip. (A comparison of a well-used passport to a stiff new one below, courtesy of Travelvice Travelogue.) Just when my passport was getting to the point where it looked awesome and well-worn, it has to go and expire---now it looks like I've never traveled a day in my life! I guess I'll just have to redouble my efforts...and maybe I'll try to wear it in like a baseball glove, so I don't feel so self-conscious...]


The international in North Dakota, ctd.

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

Before I even had a chance to post on Monday about Sherry speaking on international careers in Minot, North Dakota, comments and emails started flooding in from the Minot High students who’d just heard her speak. They ended up in the comments sections of various, random posts, so I wanted to collect them here—not so much to give Sherry a big head (though I’m confident her talk was indeed excellent), but more to highlight the idea that young people all over the country, not just in coastal areas or big cities, can and should aspire to an internationally-oriented career. Now to the comments. First from Sarah:

Hey Sherry Mueller,
My Spanish 4 class just listened to your presentation today at Magic City Campus in Minot, ND. You more than likely would recognize me as the girl who did not look like she was paying attention at all during your presentation, but trust me, I was definitely listening. I really enjoyed the way you presented, it was very uplifting and fresh, and kept the attention of seniors who have a bad case of senioritis. Your story was very uplifting as well. You not knowing what you wanted to do with your life until you were older took a lot of pressure off of me. You see, I think I know what I want to do with my life, but of course I am not so sure right now. Hearing stories of people knowing and deciding what they were going to do with their life when they were in high school and then going on to either pursuit it and not be happy with it or changing their mind about a zillion times and still not finding what they want to do, has been scaring me and putting a lot of pressure on me. But hearing your story and seeing how much joy your profession brings you gave me more confidence and reassured me that it’s okay that I don’t know what to do yet. So thank you very much and from the bottom of my heart for that reassurance and confidence booster; it is much appreciated. And although, I don’t think I want to pursuit language in my future, your speech was very interesting to listen to and an eye opener. Thank you once again, and thank you for coming to little old Minot, ND :)

Then Wyatt:

Hello Sherry and Mark,

My name is Wyatt from Magic City Campus in Minot, North Dakota. I would like to thank you very much for giving your time to speak with my fellow classmates and me about what it takes to work in a foreign country. I was quite intrigued by the wide variety of careers that a person might be able to pursue while working internationally. Although you spoke with our group for nearly an hour, I didn’t believe it was near enough time for all of the questions I still have for you. I would like to say thanks again, and hearing more from you would be great.

Thank You,


And Mercedes:

Hi Sherry Mueller,

I just listened to you today ( 09/14/09) at Magic City Campus. I enjoyed your presentation. It was very enlightening and I wish we would have had more time because there are many questions I wanted to ask and many things I wanted to tell you about my trip to Argentina and how that trip has changed my mind. I have decided that I want to work internationally. It was nice to hear first hand from a person that has experience in working around the world. Thank you so much for coming, you have made me more excited to get into working. I have decided I want to work internationally as a pediatrician so I can help children and use the Spanish I’ve been so diligently learning for the past four years. Thank you again.

Sincerely Yours,


After the jump, a few more.


Odd bits of advertising

Monday, September 14th, 2009

I’ve passed this billboard at the corner of New York and 7th, NW, in Washington many times over the past month, always intending to take a picture of it (I finally had a good camera with me a few days ago) and always puzzled by its intended message:


What exactly are they trying to say here?  My guesses:

—”At the FBI, we’ll help you make that final transition from unsightly native garb to smartly tailored business suit”; or

—”At the FBI, we’re so culturally advanced that we have Ethnic Dress Fridays”; or —and I really hope it’s this one—

—”At the FBI, we want you as an undercover operative who frequently changes disguises, like Fletch.”

I suppose they’re trying to make the point that the FBI is a culturally diverse place to work and that no matter where you’re from (or where your parents are from?), we’re all on the same team, working for the same goal. Fine, I guess. But this ad doesn’t succeed in taking us directly to that point, if that is indeed actually the point. Not only is the text clunky (my girlfriend called it “hideous—can the FBI not afford editors?”), but the duel images of young, attractive, indeterminately South Asian-looking woman in suit and head scarf raise more questions than they answer. Why is she wearing both kinds of clothes? Is she meant to be American, getting in touch with her roots? Is she meant to be foreign, now Westernized by the FBI? Are these actually two people, identical mirror twins like the evil Crimson Guard Commanders, Tomax and Xamot? And as a broader point, should it even matter what style of clothes someone is wearing while working for the FBI, or any other agency or organization for that matter? The FBI ad department could use a few tips from Don Draper and Co.

Now to a less confusing and much funnier ad that I actually saw broadcast during a football game this past weekend. A beautiful riff on the celebrities-with-fists-clenched-for-a-cause sing-alongs of old. For the people, USA.GOV!

The international in North Dakota

Monday, September 14th, 2009

Sherry pops up in the Minot Daily News. She’s there visiting an NCIV member organization, the Minot Area Council for International Visitors, and will speak at both Minot High School and Minot State University on international careers. A welcome reminder that it’s not just people in large and/or coastal cities who aspire—or who may wish to aspire given the proper prodding—to international careers.

Boren Scholarships and Fellowships

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

The opening of the 2010-11 academic year competition for NSEP David L. Boren Scholarships and Fellowships was just announced by IIE.  Boren awards provide “unique funding opportunities for U.S. undergraduate and graduate students to become more proficient in the cultures and languages of world regions critical to the future security of our nation, such as in Africa, Asia, Central & Eastern Europe, Eurasia, Latin America, and the Middle East.” A former colleague of mine was a Boren Fellow in Russia and thought the experience was invaluable. (Side note: David L. Boren: former governor of Oklahoma, U.S Senator, and now president of the University of Oklahoma. He was the longest serving Chairman of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, hence the focus on languages and regions important to national security. Thank you, Wikipedia.)

Boren Scholarships, for undergraduate students, provide up to $20,000 for an academic year’s study abroad.
Deadline: February 10, 2010 

Boren Fellowships, for graduate students, provide up to $30,000 for language study and international research. 
Deadline: January 28, 2010 

Applications and detailed information on the Boren Scholarships and Fellowships are now available.

Diplomats in Residence as career resources

Thursday, September 10th, 2009


Sixteen senior Foreign Service Officers, known as Diplomats in Residence, are assigned to different universities throughout the United States in order to help recruit “the best and the brightest” into the Foreign Service. On DipNote, Barbara Cummings, Diplomat in Residence at Howard University here in DC, discusses her role as a mentor for young people wishing to join the Foreign Service, as well as a number of opportunities available to those interested in international careers, including internships and fellowships.

Find out more about Diplomats in Residence and locate the one nearest you.