This Q&A series has emphasized the ways in which PDC members practice Public Diplomacy at all stages of their careers. With this latest installment, PDC member Kathleen Sheehan demonstrates the various forms that a career related to Public Diplomacy can take.
My intent is to highlight the importance of intergenerational learning echoes PDC President Sherry Mueller’s message in her book Working World, coauthored with Mark Overmann. I was also inspired by Olivia Chavez’s interview with Dr. Sherry Mueller (“Wanted: Young Professionals with a Passion for Public Diplomacy”). As the Public Diplomacy Council pursues its mission of establishing understanding between nations via individuals, these conversations with experienced PDC members should serve to enhance our understanding of one another within the PDC community.
I am excited to feature Kathleen Sheehan this week.
(Betsy) Tell us about yourself.
(Kathleen) Currently, I’m the executive director of an organization in Washington called the Council of American Ambassadors, which is the association of current and former non-career US ambassadors. At an earlier part of my life, from 1993 to 2007, I was a Foreign Service Political Officer.
How were you introduced to the Public Diplomacy Council?
I was introduced because of Sherry Mueller, who is (as I’m sure you know) extraordinarily gifted at bringing people together and making connections amongst people. So basically, the Council of American Ambassadors has a relationship with the Public Diplomacy Council because we run a fellowship program for mid-career Public Diplomacy officers at State. As part of the program, we have monthly mentoring sessions with people who are more senior in the field, so in order to get people to come in and be mentors, we cooperate with the PDC, because obviously PDC has so many people who have so much to contribute. Before the pandemic, I used to go and listen to speakers at the First Monday Forums on a regular basis.
How or where did you first learn about Public Diplomacy?
When I graduated from my undergrad as a 22-year-old, I moved to China, which was my first time living abroad. That really was my first experience doing Public Diplomacy, although I didn’t know it at the time. I went in the fall of 1987 to teach English at a university in Shanghai, and that spring of 1988 was an election year in the United States. I remember giving a talk at the university about the election: about Michael Dukakis — wow, this was a long time ago! — running against George Bush and the way politics works in the United States. I mean, I was just 22, what did I know? But looking back at it, I realize that was Public Diplomacy.
Which experience listed on your resume is your favorite?
I think that my favorite job that I ever did is way at the bottom of my resume, because it was so long ago, but it was being a teacher at a university in Shanghai. I felt like I was really making a difference, really making connections with people. There was no limit to my ability to interact with my students and to share with them, learn from them, and have them learn from me. I felt that even though I was only 22, I was really doing something valuable. I wasn’t part of a massive bureaucracy that was in any way controlling or maintaining me. I’ve also had a lot of interesting jobs since then, but when I think in terms of how dynamic I felt, I think of that teaching position. With teaching you can really have a personal connection with someone that you can’t always have as a member of a larger organization, such as the State Department. It was a great experience!
What are several lessons you learned the hard way, and how would you translate these lessons into career advice for young people wanting to pursue a career in the field?
I do think I have to have a caveat that I was not a Public Diplomacy Officer when I was in the Foreign Service, I was a Political Officer. However, pretty much everybody in the Foreign Service does some aspect of public diplomacy, whether it’s technically classified that way or not.
One thing that I learned the hard way is that even when you’re early in your career, you should not stand back and always wait to be asked or invited. Earlier in your career, it’s sometimes better to come forward or to suggest things. I think the State Department as an institution is very bureaucratic and hierarchical, and I think there’s sometimes a tendency for people who are early in their careers to feel that they’re at the bottom of a pyramid and wait until they’ve risen through the ranks to “take their seat at the table.”
While you have to be respectful of the hierarchy and bureaucracy, you don’t need to wait all the time. Often in State Department settings, there’s this question of, “Are you high-ranking enough to sit at the table, or should you sit in one of the chairs at the side of the room?” One of the things I wished that I had done is just immediately come into the room and sat at the table as opposed to the back bench. I probably had more to contribute than I thought I did at the time.
What was it like for your family during your time in the Foreign Service?
I was single during my first two tours overseas, so there was no family in tow, and it was relatively easy. Later in my career when I got married and had kids, I was back in Washington. So basically, when I had a family I never served overseas. I think I’m an example of somebody for whom that aspect of the work of the Foreign Service proved to be difficult. The moving around and being overseas is much easier when it’s just you, and when you add additional dependents, as the State Department calls them, it gets to be challenging.
You definitely have to be the type of person who wants to move, but even if you’re in Washington you have to want to change your job every three years. That has to be part of the way your mind works, that after two or three years you’re ready for something new. Over a lifetime you can become an expert on a region or a country, but in small bursts, you are always learning and new to the job.
Is there a definition you could give to the form of public diplomacy you were doing as a political officer in the Foreign Service?
As a Political Officer overseas, you are always talking to people about the United States and what motivates the United States, whether as a country or as individual Americans: Why we do what we do and why we think what we think. Even if you’re going into a meeting to talk about a particular policy issue, you inevitably end up bringing into the conversation these other aspects of what it is to be an American. When you’re overseas in the Foreign Service, regardless of your role, you are constantly thinking about how to present and share American ideas in such a way that your counterpart is going to have a better understanding of what it is to be an American and of America as a country, and how is that understanding going to facilitate the agenda with which I came into the meeting.
During your first experience living abroad, what did you learn about the American mentality?
As an American living in China for the first time, I learned how we as Americans are so individualistic in our thinking, our outlook, the way we approach life, and the way we approach problems. Being in China that first time, I realized that I was in a society where people are much more likely to think about the group, whether it’s a smaller group in your own personal life or the bigger group within the country. That was something I noticed right away, and there are good aspects of that individuality and negative aspects of it (take our approach to fighting the pandemic, for example). On the other hand, you could also say it’s one of the greatest strengths of the United States that people have this rugged individualism.
Something else was the concept of privacy, or the lack thereof. I remember living in China and thinking that you never have privacy, because there are so many people in the country! I was living in Shanghai, and you were always with other people. No matter the time of day, there were always bustling crowds around you. As an American, you assume that you will have privacy, not just in the physical sense but also in the way you think and express yourself. Everything in China seemed very public.
If the PDC had a talent show, what would your act be?
I would do some interesting yoga poses. Not necessarily the best poses, but interesting ones!
Imagine an alternate life for yourself; which career would you have pursued if money, ability, or other limitations were not factors?
If I could go back and choose another career, it would simply be to stay in the Foreign Service. I think I had the right career, but I left it. It’s a remarkable career; sometimes only in retrospect do you realize how unique and special an experience is.
Elizabeth (Betsy) Cornelius is pursuing her M.A. in International Affairs Policy and Analysis at American University’s School of International Service. There, she applies her experience in Germany and Austria in her research assistantship with the Transatlantic Policy Center.