Go Abroad, Join the Foreign Service

Philippines rainforest; Photo by: pixabay.com, Creative Commons Deed CC0
Jessica Chesbro, who has a mobility disability, has studied abroad in the Netherlands and France and was also a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines. She is now a Foreign Service Officer for the U.S. Department of State.

Jessica Chesbro first learned about the Foreign Service while she was living in a bamboo hut in a small farming village in the Philippines. At the time, she was serving in the Peace Corps and working with abused children.

“The Peace Corps experience was life-changing. I learned so much about life there, and really strengthened my passion both for travel and for helping people.”

It was also life-changing because it led to her current career with the Foreign Service.

“One of the challenges of Foreign Service life is having a string of assignments in different countries, which means every few years you have to be prepared to go into a new country and a potentially unfamiliar cultural environment. My exchange experience taught me I could not only cope with that lifestyle, but really enjoy it.”

Chesbro, who has a mobility disability, has traveled all over the world, both through her job and through her international exchange experiences. As a high school student, she did a three-week exchange in Germany. As an undergraduate in college, she spent a semester in France. As a graduate student in law school, she spent a summer in the Netherlands studying international law.

These experiences, along with her time in the Peace Corps, provided her with the professional development opportunities that have led her to a career in the Foreign Service.

"International exchange experiences have been extremely valuable, both personally and professionally. Professionally, my career involves spending a lot of time going into new countries, experiencing new cultures, and learning to adapt. My exchange experiences were extremely valuable in learning how to do that quickly and effectively. I also gained considerable foreign language skills, which are extremely valuable for anyone who wants to work internationally, as well as for a wide variety of jobs in the United States. Most importantly, I learned a lot about building and maintaining relationships cross-culturally, which is really important to my work.”

Chesbro joined the Peace Corps right after college. She lived in a region of the Philippines called the Western Visayas, and in addition to her work in the children’s home, she was also the regional Peace Corps representative on HIV awareness. Her time in the Philippines provided her with valuable real world experience.

“Peace Corps was just beginning to work on HIV awareness in the Philippines, and so a big part of my effort involved starting from scratch. I needed to work with other volunteers to provide information, resources, and training on HIV awareness, as well as work with local and regional government officials on the issue. This was my first time working independently on a project of that scale.”

In the Peace Corps, she had her first professional meetings and first major public speaking experience. She learned how to read through laws and how to work with a wide range of stakeholders.

“I conducted trainings and learned about tailoring presentations to the audience. I learned how to bring up sensitive subjects in different cultural environments. I learned a world of skills which are important to both my current job and to a wide range of international careers, all from that one project.”

While she gained invaluable real world experience in the Peace Corps, her time in the Netherlands provided her with academic knowledge on a wide variety of subjects ranging from the United Nations and international law to arts and culture, all of which are important to her career. Chesbro had fun, too—she says it was her favorite academic exchange.

“We had some excellent teachers who’d worked on international war crimes tribunals, and after class they’d hold office hours in a local pub, where we’d talk about everything from the history of international law to Terry Pratchett novels. On weekends, I could go into Amsterdam and visit the museums. It was the first time in my life I saw real paintings by Rembrandt and Van Gogh.”

While arts and culture may not seem as important to the work Chesbro does as subjects like international law, she describes it as “extremely relevant to Public Diplomacy.”

“I learned how much I love sharing information and experience across cultures. Part of the reason I chose Public Diplomacy as my cone (area of professional specialization) in the Foreign Service is that I learned how much I love not only going out and learning about other cultures, but also sharing the richness and diversity of American history and culture with people around the world.”

For Chesbro, going abroad gave her valuable skills for her resume while clarifying her career path and leading her to her work with the foreign service. She strongly recommends that people with disabilities consider international exchange regardless of the career they are considering.

“[International exchange] programs are great for professional development. You don’t necessarily have to pick something with an extremely targeted professional focus either; many exchange programs teach skills which are applicable to a wide range of professional environments. Working with people from different cultural backgrounds, finding creative ways to solve problems, coping with challenging environments, communicating effectively, these are all excellent skills to have for any kind of career.”

Jessica is currently the cultural attaché of the Embassy of the United States in Kinshasa, Congo.