Rebecca Hanks is an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying political science. This semester, Rebecca is serving as an intern for the East Africa Bureau of the U.S. State Department through a program called Wisconsin-in-Washington. In this AFRICA IN OUR LIVES, Rebecca talks about her experience becoming a part of the program, and what her days are like now that she is in D.C.
Field of Study: Political Science
Hometown: Urbana, Illinois
Tell us an interesting fact about yourself.
I have an IMDb page!
What sparked your interest in the Wisconsin-in-Washington Program?
I actually found the program on the Study Abroad website in my first semester at Madison. I knew immediately that I would participate in my junior year, and I was so disappointed that I would have to wait so long to head out. I knew that Washington, D.C. was the place to go if you were interested in political science and international relations and I wanted so badly to be an intern at, you guessed it, the State Department! Needless to say, I am super thrilled to be in the situation I’m in now.
Why did you choose the East Africa Bureau?
When you’re applying for an internship at the State Department, you have to pick two bureaus in which you’d be interested in working. I’m a student of Arabic at Madison and have always been interested in the Middle East, so NEA (Near Eastern Affairs) was an obvious choice.
It was actually my time interning in the African Studies Program, though, that sparked my decision to apply to the African Affairs Bureau as well. Over the course of my year working for the program, I learned so much about the continent from faculty, coworkers, and Africa at Noon seminar speakers, and I grew to truly love the field of African Studies.
I submitted my application to these two bureaus in early March. I heard back from a few offices in NEA, and I was strongly considering accepting an offer from one in particular. Then, one of my current coworkers in the East Africa Office reached out to me to see if I might be interested in working for their office instead. We ended up having a great conversation about his career and about Africa in general, and the way he described the office environment made it seem very warm and welcoming (which, now that I’m actually here, I can confirm to be true). I committed to working there the next day, and I have absolutely no regrets.
What does the typical day of a Wisconsin-in-Washington scholar look like?
All the WIW scholars currently live in the Congressional, an apartment complex just one block away from the Supreme Court. This is a fantastic location – only five minutes from the Capitol building and the National Mall, and less than ten minutes to two metro stops on different lines. Unfortunately, though, my location means that my commute to the State Department is around 45 minutes every morning.
I wake up around 6:15AM, leave for work at seven, and arrive at the office by around eight. Every day in the office is different, but it honestly always flies by! One minute I’m busy going to meetings, sitting down with my supervisors, drafting documents, preparing spreadsheets, or answering emails and then suddenly, I look up and realize that it’s already 5PM. Then, I either have class with the rest of my cohort or go home and relax. The work week is broken up by a full day of class every Wednesday.
What are some of the most challenging parts of this position and some of the most rewarding?
My internship is an incredible duality of both inspiration and challenges. It’s normal for interns at the State Department to be given a substantive amount of work in the office, but it still came as a bit of a shock to me given my previous experiences as an intern. In many legislative offices, the most significant assignments given to me were constituent casework or preparing internal documents. At the State Department, well, things can be quite different. These high expectations have been very stressful, but it is also a great confidence builder when I am able to meet or exceed them.
I’ve gotten to dip my toes in a lot of the granular, intense policy work that really interests me, and that has been fantastic. Everyone in the office is also incredibly supportive and knowing that they want to see me succeed has given me the confidence to go out, try new things, and make mistakes. Interestingly, I feel as if these have now become established personality traits for me and not just ones that I use in the office. I am much more confident on a day-to-day basis in expressing my ideas and even being a little confrontational in defending them, which is something I have always struggled with in the past.
Another rewarding part of this internship has been learning more about the countries of East Africa (by State Department definition: Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Madagascar, Mauritius, Comoros, Kenya, and Djibouti). It is such a unique and interesting region of the world, and I want to go out and share it with everyone I know. On that note… one great book I would recommend reading on Eritrea in particular is, I Didn’t Do It For You, by Michaela Wrong!
What aspects of UW-Madison best prepared you for your current role?
My role as an editor at the Wisconsin International Review was incredibly beneficial. Not only did it improve my writing abilities, but it helped me determine what to look for when editing content that others have produced.
Given the recent explosion of international and media attention paid to China-Africa relations in recent months, the China in World Politics course I took last Spring has also proved to be incredibly useful in helping me understand some of the complicated dynamics within East Africa, as well as U.S.-Africa relations more generally.
What advice would you give students interested in working with the State Department?
First, look through the State Department’s Careers webpage — read about what they’re looking for in employees, look into which bureaus that you may be interested in applying to, and develop an understanding of how the Department is organized. Then, go out and get an internship in Madison. It does not have to be international in nature! Working in the State Capitol is a great start if you have not had a political internship. Make sure to think through, and even write down, what skills or experiences you want to get out of that internship before you begin and try to draw from what was mentioned in the State Department website. Writing, critical thinking, and time management/organizational skills are especially important for internships in the State Department, so I would definitely recommend developing each of these as much as you can!
Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?
My main goal for five years from now is to be working in D.C. at an entry level job that I love and to be enrolled in a Master’s program of international focus. I might be preparing for the Foreign Service Officer Exam as well, but the exact timelines there are a little fuzzier. Fortunately, I’ve met many recent Madison graduates here in D.C. that have been able to accomplish this goal and they’ve all given me a lot of great advice.
By Aberdeen Leary