Parker offers advice for pursuing State Department careers

Christine Parker ՚96 found herself early in the first year of her career at the U.S. Department of State in Lima, Peru, being helicoptered to an airliner crash site in the Amazon to support American citizens who had been aboard. 

One of her colleagues was sent to the hospital to assist American survivors and another went to the morgue to assist those who had died. Parker’s task was not one she could have entirely prepared herself for, but she determinedly took it on. She found herself stepping around the crash site looking for any belongings that might be the property of the Americans on that flight. 

She found two backpacks she could identify as likely being purchased in the U.S. A mother and her adult son had each died on the flight and inside these two backpacks, she found a journal written in English. The young man had just completed his work in the Peace Corps and had his journal documented that experience. The mother’s journal looked as if it was purchased just for this trip with her son. 

Parker wanted to make sure those journals were returned to their family and found herself drying the journals with a hairdryer before they disintegrated from the mixture of jet fuel and whatever else had saturated the pages in the jungle. 

What did Parker study at Cornell in order to prepare her for this day? English literature and philosophy

The skills of a liberal arts graduate

Berry Career Institute, asked Parker during a talk she gave to approximately 100 students, faculty, and staff over Zoom on how Cornell prepared her for her 17-year career at the U.S. Department of State alongside her co-presenter, Diplomat in Residence for the Midwest Ron Packowitz. She quickly listed off the desirable skills of a liberal arts graduate—critical thinking, communication, especially writing skills, and the comfortability of asking good questions. 

“The support I had from Cornell made a big difference to where I am now,” Parker said. 

In a conversation after the talk, Napoli said, “Cornell attracts many students with an interest in international relations and global affairs, and we have quite a few alumni who have excelled in the field. Partnering with professionals such as Christine gives students an incredible view into where their Cornell degree can take them and the alumni support they can receive along the way. These types of professional development programs are meant to not only inspire and educate our students but also support them in building their professional networks.”

Department of State careers

Parker’s current role in the U.S. Department of State is as consular chief to the U.S. mission to Senegal. Both Parker and Packowitz noted that the Department of State purposely looks for diversity when hiring—diverse backgrounds, geographies, majors, and specialties. They want both the generalist who is knowledgeable about the U.S. and specialists who can serve in niche areas of expertise from computer science, math, engineering, medicine, the humanities, and the arts. 

After Parker graduated she worked in the publishing industry in Chicago for a few years until she felt a need for something different. She began the process of applying for a position in the U.S. Department of State, which as Packowitz noted, requires persistence and patience because it can take up to a year to complete the various exams before getting a placement. Neither one of them got that acceptance notification on their first try. Packowitz continued to practice law and Parker worked in publishing until they both began their careers as foreign officers. 

The Department of State offers careers as foreign service officers, foreign service specialists, (both of which spend two to three years at various foreign posts across the world before moving on to another foreign post somewhere else in the world), and civil service positions, which are domestic staff who support diplomats from offices usually in Washington, D.C., but can be elsewhere in the U.S. 

Packowitz noted that his first assignment was in Ecuador and from there he spent two to three years each in Washington, D.C.; Bogota, Columbia; Frankfurt, Germany; back to Ecuador; followed by D.C. again; London; Afghanistan; and finally in Chicago where he is recruiting (Cornell alumni should reach out to him) and offering assistance to students who are interested in pursuing foreign or civil service careers. He recommends students check out to explore more on their own or email him at 

Another tip, if you’re interested in foreign service, is knowing both English (which is critical in these careers) and being familiar with other languages. The Department offers hiring bonuses if you are proficient in another language. The Department will train you not only in diplomacy but in another language if you are assigned to a country where another language is necessary that you are not proficient in. 

Internships through the Department of State

In addition to careers after graduation, both Parker and Packowitz encourage students to take advantage of many different internships and fellowships (paying and non-paying) offered through the U.S. Department of State. Napoli emphasized that if any of the non-paying opportunities interest Cornell students, the students should reach out to the Berry Career Institute to see if funding is available to help financially support their desire to pursue these opportunities. In addition, the U.S. Department of State offers graduate fellowships that cover two years of grad school along with two paid summer internships, and when you’re done, you become a member of the foreign service. 

There are many pathways to a career with the U.S. Department of State, which is always looking for bright talent like our Cornell graduates.