Pursuing a Career in Foreign Policy: An Interview with Will Follmer
The Young Professionals Interview Series is geared toward undergraduate students and recent graduates interested in learning more about how YPFP staff members have broken into the field of foreign policy, and what advice they may have for their younger colleagues.
This week, Will Follmer, Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State, shares his journey to becoming a U.S. diplomat.
Name: Will Follmer
Member Since: Sept. 2013
Current Job: Foreign Service Officer (Economic)
Status: Starting language training in Mandarin and going to China for his first tour.
YPFP Positions: Event Manager in the Programs Department
Education: St. Mary’s College of Maryland; B.A. History and Political Science, Maryland School of Public Policy; MPP International Security and Economic Policy, and International Development Policy
Interests: Photography, running, concerts=, hiking, and going to DC cultural events
Interviewer: Libby Marking, JobLink Team
1. Why did you join YPFP?
I was interested in branching out and meeting people who found it fun to have small talk over policy. I saw a Washington Post article about an YPFP event and I thought it sounded interesting. Afterwards, I signed up as a member.
2. What area of the international arena interests you the most?
Throughout my studies and work I have touched on many different issues such as human rights, international security, legislative affairs, civil society, and economics. I’ve also covered a number of regions and countries such as Eastern Europe, Turkey, the Maghreb, South America, and am now moving on to work in China (Guangzhou) starting next year. Part of the reason the Foreign Service interested me is that by the nature of the career I’d get to work on so many areas of my current interests, and discover even more.
3. What were you doing before you became a Foreign Service Officer?
After college I interned at an NGO before grad school. I then interned with congressional leadership and the House Foreign Affairs Committee during my first two semesters of grad school. After that, I interned at the State Department in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) and began working there that summer. I spent my first year working as an assistant to the Assistant Secretary of State, then two years working on human rights issues in Latin America with the State Department as a Foreign Affairs Officer. During that time I covered several countries in South America and thematically I focused on indigenous issues, civil society, freedom of expression, LGBT rights, and multilateral partnerships.
4. What spurred your interest in becoming a Foreign Service Officer
I heard about it in college from my International Affairs professor in my final semester. I had always wanted to pursue a career in public service and when I became interested in international affairs it seemed like a great fit for me. As a Foreign Service Officer, you do something new every two years, but you still have a solid career path and it never gets boring.
5. Which career track did you choose and why?
I chose the Economic track, but I would have been happy with the Political track too which I applied for during my first two attempts. In grad school I became interested in how economic statecraft affected all of the diverse fields in international affairs, and wanted to work on those issues from an economic context.
6. Describe your experience of going through the Foreign Service Officer Test and share any tips or insights.
I was very lucky to be able to go through the whole process within a year, partly due to the fact I already possessed my security clearance. It can take two to three years for some to get through the process. The written exam requires a lot of diverse general knowledge on topics ranging from the Constitution, international trade, history, to even administrative issues and quantitative skills. One tip is to not get bogged down in the biography section and just get your experience across as quickly as possible in this section. If you are interested in this career, be prepared to try and try again. It took me three times to get in, and I know well-qualified people who took five or six times before they got in. Don’t become discouraged; just keep going for it. Remember that there are always other great careers out there that you can do which can help strengthen your resume for the next go.
7. How did you prepare for the FSOT?
I did not study much for the written exam; instead I worked on learning how to take the exam. It’s more important to prepare by learning what to expect rather than learning any specific knowledge or issues as the subject matter is very broad. Don’t stress out too much beforehand. Before my oral exam, I went out for quick happy hour in the afternoon, got a good night’s sleep, and went for a jog in the morning, yet in the end I felt steady throughout the long day. The key is to not stress.
8. What was the A-100 like? (Orientation training class for incoming Foreign Service Officers)
A-100 was a great experience. You learn about what you will be doing in your career as a Foreign Service Officer and what to expect in your first job. You do something new every day and it drills into you the resilience needed for a demanding career. The best part about A-100 was getting to know all of my fellow classmates. They come from a variety of backgrounds and are all unique characters in their own right. It’s great to know that you’ll be lifelong colleagues and friends no matter where you are stationed across the globe.
9. What are you most looking forward to? What are you most worried about?
I’m looking forward to seeing the world and meeting all the interesting people out there that I’ll be working with inside and outside the Embassies. I’m also excited about working on the implementation and development of US foreign policy and being able to see the impact of that firsthand. I will miss my friends and family of course, but with the way the Foreign Service operates, DC always feels like your home base. However, with today’s technology it’s really easy to keep in touch with people. Managing long-term relationships is my biggest worry. You sacrifice a lot for this career, but it’s an amazing career where the rewards outweigh those sacrifices.
10. What did you want to do before you went to college?
I wanted to be a marine biologist and a writer. I half gave up on marine biology, but I still plan to become a published novelist someday.
11. How did your career choice evolve throughout school and as you started your career?
I actually didn’t even travel abroad for the first time until after college. I didn’t know I wanted to do international affairs until my senior year at St. Mary’s. I became interested in the field from taking various regional history classes, and seeing how all those regional histories have become increasingly intertwined as global history. I grew even more interested in foreign policy while following the 2008 elections, where I closely followed the foreign policy debates. Afterwards, I doubled down and sought the experience to get a career in this field and follow my passions.
12. Where do you see yourself a decade from now?
I have no idea, and that’s what makes this career so great.
13. If you weren’t in the foreign affairs world, what would be your alternative dream job?
I would definitely like to be a successful novelist. My dream job would be writing out my 8-book story, the “Apotheosis series” (ever a work in progress).
14. What was the most rewarding experience you’ve had while away from your home country?
Living with indigenous people in Morocco and Peru and learning about their perspectives on the world, specifically their views on economic and social development. It was also rewarding to visit the favelas in Rio de Janeiro and speak directly with the residents there. One lesson I’ve learned through these experiences is that the first step of economic and development policies should be to talk to those impacted. If there is a mismatch between their priorities and that of the policymakers success will be unlikely.
15. What do you know now that you wish you could tell your younger self, undergraduate or otherwise?
This will sound paradoxical, but I’d tell him that I have nothing to offer him, that he should live the experiences I have gone through. Instead, realize that you wouldn’t have become the person you are today without the growth that came from those missteps or worrying about the roads not taken. All the best times of my life came following the most difficult times.
Will is available for career advice and coffee meetings with YPFP members. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.