Sarah Loss Mathur

Political Officer, US Embassy, Seoul, South Korea, 2012-present

Amit Mathur

Vice Consul, US Embassy, Seoul, South Korea, 2012-present

Career Trajectories

Sarah:

US Embassy, Foreign Service Officer, Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 2010-12

US Department of Commerce, International Trade Administration, Attorney Advisor, Washington, DC, 2006-9

US Department of State, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, Presidential Management Fellow, Washington, DC, 2005-6

Amit:

US Embassy, Foreign Service Officer, Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 2010-12

US Department of State, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Office of Economic Policy, Foreign Affairs Officer, Washington,

DC, 2006-9

US Department of Justice, Justice Management Division, Presidential Management Fellow, Washington, DC, 2005-6

Deloitte Consulting, IT Consultant, Chicago, IL, 2000-2003

Academic Backgrounds

Sarah:

Boston University School of Law, JD, 2005

University of Wisconsin-Madison, BA (International Relations, Political Science, Spanish) 2001

Amit:

American University School of International Service, MA (International Affairs, International Politics), 2005

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, BS (Computer Engineering), 2000

How do you define your cause?

Amit: I think my cause is very straightforward: to promote and defend the interests and values of the United States overseas. Like so many others of my generation, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the Iraq War were formative experiences for me. I felt an urgent need to be a part of something bigger than myself, to give back in some way. This meant returning to grad school and switching careers without really knowing what direction I was going. Taking a leap of faith, trying different jobs, and experiencing different types of internships led me toward the Foreign Service. It wasn't any sort of immediate shift that led me to the Foreign Service.

Sarah: My cause is to represent the United States overseas, to share what we as Americans are all about, and to do what I can to make this world a little better—not just for Americans, but for the rest of the world as well. We work for a country whose actions have a huge influence on the rest of the globe, and with that comes a lot of responsibility. There's a lot of work to be done, and I want to be able to reach out, communicate, and try to find common ground.

What drew you to this cause and your field?

Sarah: For me, it began in high school. I became interested in learning more about not just global issues but also the United States' role in the world. I realized the importance of explaining our purpose to other countries, explaining our democratic values, our focus on human rights, and our ideals—even though sometimes we, ourselves, don't live up to them.

I wanted to be able to explain my country to other people. I wanted to meet with people from other countries, find commonalities, and work together on global problems. Eventually it made sense that the Foreign Service was one place where I could work officially for the United States government to do these things.

Amit: Before grad school, I was a management IT consultant in the financial service sector. I realized I wasn't happy doing that type of work. It was a great job, a wonderful experience, and I don't regret it. But it wasn't personally fulfilling, and I was looking for something more.

I thought I wanted to do international law, and then maybe international development. I had an internship at a small development firm that does public-private partnerships and then I joined another company, trying to marry my computer engineering and IT background with international development. But I realized I wasn't a good fit for international development. There are people who are very passionate and do fantastic work in the field, but it wasn't a good fit for me.

After realizing this, I joined the PMF program (Presidential Management Fellows program—see chapter 10), which allowed me to try different roles in the government. That's how I got into the State Department, through a rotation in the PMF program. It wasn't until about a year doing multilateral work in the State Department in APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) that I said, "I really like this work; maybe I should think about becoming a Foreign Service Officer."

How would you describe your field?

Amit: I'd say the Foreign Service encompasses many different fields, from nuclear nonproliferation to bilateral trade. We can also have an impact in the areas of cultural exchange, education, and development. For example, the State Department operates formal exchange programs that date back to the Kennedy administration and even earlier. Part of my job right now is to conduct visa interviews with South Koreans who are interested in experiencing life in the United States as exchange students.

One of the objectives of each regional bureau in the State Department is to promote educational linkages and economic development in their specific regions and countries. The United States recently signed a free trade agreement with South Korea, which is contributing to shared growth and prosperity. It's helping South Korea continue to develop economically, while at the same time helping Americans back home by opening new markets and enabling American businesses to export their products and services to South Korea.

Sarah: I would describe the field as dynamic. Much depends on what's happening in the news that day or within the bilateral political or economic relationship. We very often are expected to become the experts on a certain subject without much advanced notice. That said, it's exciting to be in on the action and to see US foreign policy being formed and to have some role, however small, in making that happen.

Amit: What can we really do? Where do we add value? We have a convening power among US government agencies and among other countries, and we have a facilitation role to play. The Foreign Service doesn't always have the resources to implement everything, but we do have the power to bring all the right people together, to bring stakeholders together to focus limited resources and energies on a particular problem. And that can be in education, health, economic reform, political reform, the environment—any of those areas. We rely very much on our partners in those fields to help accomplish these goals, to help advance US interests and values overseas.

How would you describe your career paths?

Sarah: An international affairs career for me wasn't completely out of the blue. Prior to college, I knew I wanted to do something in this field. Once I made that decision, even if I didn't know what the end point might be, I made sure to take advantage of as many internships and related courses as possible. For me, internships were important. For example, I worked at my state capitol and for a US senator. I think it was important to be involved in domestic politics. When I graduated with my degrees in international relations and political science . . . well, that doesn't immediately translate into a job, unless you're very lucky (laughs). So I had my first State Department internship after college, which opened many more doors than I initially thought it would.

Then I went to law school because I wasn't quite ready to choose a career after college. I wanted to look more into the international legal field. I again worked for the State Department, but this time as a law clerk. I participated in the same fellowship program that Amit mentioned, the PMF (see chapter 10), and afterward I worked as an international trade attorney at the US Department of Commerce.

It's important to note that every single one of these internships and positions stemmed from the one before it. Now that I think about it, there was nothing completely random about the path I took. Most of my experiences grew from previous opportunities and learning from the people that I met. Each opportunity helped me find the next step along the way. It's important to dream big and to look forward to what you want to do, but realize you can't get there overnight. Take the opportunities as they're presented to you, and they'll always result in something positive.

What are the major day-to-day activities of your current positions?

Amit: It's important to understand that Foreign Service Officer generalists are expected to be able to perform any type of job at an embassy or in the main Department of State offices in DC. Even though you declare one of the five tracks—political, economic, management, public diplomacy, or consular—you're expected to be able to do any of those jobs. This is one of the things that attracted us to the profession: at any point over the course of our careers, we may be doing a different type of job. Both of us are in the political cone, though right now Sarah is in a political job and I'm doing a consular job.

Sarah: Our next tour, we'll both be doing something different. In my current position, I work in the political section of the embassy, which is divided into three subunits: one covers South Korean foreign policy, another covers South Korean domestic issues, and another focuses on the political/military relationship between the United States and South Korea. My role, in particular, is to meet regularly with South Korean government officials, NGO leaders, academics, and others to learn more about issues on the Korean peninsula and in the region that are of importance to both the United States and South Korea. I also explain US policies and priorities to Korean audiences and work with the government here not only to promote US interests, but also to find shared interests that may serve as areas for cooperation. The reason we and our colleagues are here in Seoul, as opposed to covering the same issues in Washington, is to provide the value added by meeting with people, by having extended conversations and gaining a greater insight into the culture, the politics, and the buzz here on the ground.

Amit: Currently, I'm a vice consul, one of several who are required by law to interview any foreigner who wishes to visit the United States. I'm in the nonimmigrant visa section, where we mainly adjudicate tourist, exchange visitor, and student visas. South Korea is a Visa Waiver Program country, which means that people who want to visit the United States for business or tourism for periods of less than three months don't require a visa. But students and exchange visitors still do. My job is to determine whether applicants meet all the legal requirements for a visa. For example, have they overcome the presumption of immigrant intent?

In the high season, I interview more than one hundred people every day. Within the space of two or three minutes, I need to determine whether that person is qualified under US law to visit the United States. I'm not only facilitating travel to the United States, I'm also doing my best to prevent those who would do harm to the United States from ever reaching our shores.

If you're a Foreign Service Officer, generally you're expected to do at least one consular tour. And consular officers are often the first Americans—the first government officials, for sure—that many applicants meet. They probably come in with preconceived notions, or Hollywood ideas, of what America is and what Americans are like. It's important that the conversation be professional and courteous because, in the applicant's mind, we are the face of the United States.

What is your best advice for developing effective networking skills?

Sarah: The best way to network is to always be open to the people you meet. You never know who is going to have something in common with you, who is going to provide insights on job opportunities or career ideas. I've encountered people who obviously had their networking hats on. It's a little bit jarring. They'll recite their resumes in the first fifteen minutes of a conversation (laughs). I think that may be a novice approach.

It's a two-way street. Rather than only trying to get leads from people, make sure that you're also providing assistance or advice when you can. You need to be willing to engage. Always be ready to learn, listen, and take opportunities that you hadn't previously anticipated.

Amit: I actually think that if you're looking for a job, you should be prepared with your two-minute elevator speech if you meet someone . . .

Sarah: And I disagree, but anyway . . . (laughs).

Amit: (Laughs) Well, if you're looking for a job, and you're actively networking to find a job, you need to be able to explain to someone you meet, in two minutes, who you are and what value you can add to their organization. That doesn't mean reciting your resume; that just means giving them something to help them remember you. All that first meeting does is give you an entry into a broader conversation.

My approach to networking, having joined the Foreign Service, is always to stay in touch with people. To be sincere, approachable, and open. To be in touch with people, even if you don't need anything from them. It's not about calling someone up when you need something, it's about staying in touch with your network. Ask about people's hobbies; remember a certain tidbit about that person that humanizes the relationship. It's not a transactional relationship.

Sarah: Yes, it's a long-term relationship. If you come across as someone who is using the moment, and then you drop off and don't bother to foster the relationship further on, you'll be missing out on a lot of professional opportunities.

Amit: And that person is not going to want to help you.

Sarah: Exactly. It's a small world. People know people. You want to make sure you present yourself in the best possible way at all times. As Amit said, keep your communication open, keep the connections active. That doesn't mean you have to e-mail them every week— maybe just once a year. Especially with tools like LinkedIn, you can just drop a message and say "Hey, how are you doing? Where are you working now?" Just stay out there, stay visible.

Do you have mentors? How have they affected your lives and careers?

Sarah: If you maintain an active network, then ideally you should be able to call on any number of those people for advice as your career evolves. As far as an official mentor, no, I don't have one. But, even yesterday, Amit and I had lunch with another Foreign Service tandem couple who are twenty years further along in their careers. We said, "We'll take you out to lunch if you tell us how you've done it. How did you manage to stay married while in this career, raise two kids, and have all these great jobs around the world?" Find someone who has a career you'd love to emulate and ask them for advice and insights. I think most people are willing to share their experiences.

Amit: Everyone has something different to offer. I've never had a formal mentor either, but I've been lucky to have good bosses. I call on them when I'm looking for advice, and I stay in touch with them and keep tabs on their careers.

Sarah: It's valuable to have diverse viewpoints. A mentor with a capital "M" is great, but they are presenting what worked for them, their specific ideas and experiences. In order to have a successful career, you need to draw upon multiple sources and perspectives to figure out what works for you. There's no one-size-fits-all.

Do you consider yourselves mentors to others?

Amit: I'd like to think so. One of the best pieces of advice I got when I started grad school was: "You're going to network as much as you can, get as much advice as you can, but don't forget to give back. That is your responsibility as you progress up the career ladder." I take that responsibility pretty seriously. When people ask me for advice, I help out as much as possible.

Sarah: Within the Foreign Service there are so many paths, so there is a healthy, mutual exchange of mentoring. We haven't been Foreign Service Officers for very long, but we've already been in a situation where we've been able to convey our experiences to others looking for advice. Even though we've only been in Seoul for six months, we bid for our next post next summer. There's no settling down. You never end up getting too comfortable or taking things for granted in your position because you're always moving on to something else. So guidance throughout your career is necessary.

Amit: The Foreign Service is like a journeyman profession; you have to learn the trade from others and through experience.

What lessons have you learned as your careers have evolved?

Amit: There is no such thing as a perfect career plan. Life tends to get in the way. It's important to have goals that lead you in the right direction toward the career or lifestyle that interests you. It's important to be flexible and open to opportunities. As Sarah said, you never know where a particular path will take you.

Sarah: I agree completely. If you have set in stone what you think your career will be and this is the only way to get there, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment.

Amit: It's also important to define your own success. For some people it may mean having a good work-life balance and making sure you can spend quality time with your family. It may mean getting to the top of a profession or helping that one community in Africa get clean water or build a school. Don't discount any of that, it's all valuable.

How have you maintained a healthy balance between your work and personal lives?

Sarah: It's a work in progress (laughs). The important thing is to set priorities. You need to look inside yourself and at your family and see what works for you. There'll always be compromises that have to be made, especially with children. But that's a choice you have to make beforehand and then proceed accordingly.

Amit: It's very challenging. We decided at the outset that we had three rules for ourselves. First, we wanted to make sure that we're serving together. The second is to never compete with one another at work.

Sarah: (Laughs).

Amit: And the third—not in any order—is always to put family first. Family will drive our career decisions. That's what we'd like to achieve, and there may be times where one may take precedence over the other.

Work-life balance depends a lot on the type of job you're doing and on your boss. If both of those align well, then it's up to you to have personal discipline, to remember what you have decided is important.

Sarah: Right now we're in a situation where our work-life balance is relatively good. Many colleagues have families, and everyone understands this, even when the office gets a little chaotic. That said, when we take on the next assignments it may be different.

Amit: It's also important to cultivate interests outside of work. Being in the Foreign Service defines us in that it's very much a commitment to a lifestyle.

Sarah: Yes, all our neighbors are our coworkers. Especially in this career, there is much less division between personal and work life, given that we are twenty-four-hour representatives of the US government.

Amit: You're always on.

 
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