Former Ambassador Prudence Bushnell was among the international affairs experts who shared advice with the first-year students about careers in diplomacy.
By B.L. Wilson
On the eve of International Women’s Day, students of the George Washington University Elizabeth J. Somers Women’s Leadership Program (WLP) spent an evening in the company of former U. S. Ambassador Prudence Bushnell and more than a dozen other women foreign service officers, leaders and experts in international affairs.
Despite obstacles women in the foreign service face, Ms. Bushnell moved up through the ranks, serving in India, Senegal, Kenya, Guatemala and Washington D.C.
She cautioned the students from the WLP--a selective, year-long program for first-year women offered exclusively at the Mount Vernon Campus--Thursday evening that ambitious women managers are not thought of as nice people.
“It is harder for women to climb the ladder because men and women in this country still believe that women should take care and men should take charge,” she said.
”When you look in the eyes of a murdering warlord in whatever country--I happened to do it in Burundi, Rwanda and Liberia, Angola and other countries--, smile.”
Ms. Bushnell received the State Department’s Award for Heroism for leading the response to the 1998 Al Qaeda bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi when she was ambassador to Kenya.
Ms. Bushnell and Jenna Ben-Yehuda, B.A. ’02, founder of the Women’s Foreign Policy Network, and the incoming president and CEO of the Truman Center for National Policy, organized the event and brought along colleagues to share their experiences.
The network was founded five years ago, when Ms. Ben-Yehuda was in a mid-career program at the National Defense University and met “amazing rock star women all over government and industry” who didn’t know each other.
“We created a vibrant and dynamic community of supportive women,” she said, “who have sought to stand in for that smoke-filled room, the golf course, all these private spaces that men have had for generations, to be accessible to us while we are nursing our infants and caring for parents.”
Project managers for the U. S. Agency for International Development, State Department desk officers, defense analysts, non-governmental organization representatives, professors and reporters were introduced before more intimate discussions about their career paths were held with students at tables throughout the room.
Students in the Women's Leadership Program heard advice from foreign service professionals in small-group settings. (Willaim Atkins/GW Today)
Students at the table of Caitlyn Conaty Turner, M.A. ‘17, wanted to know her career path when she was an undergraduate. She said she had no idea then.
Ms. Turner found her way into international affairs through dance after an Afro-Latino dance professor introduced her not only to the music and dance of Latin America, but also to its culture. That led to a major in global affairs, a minor in Spanish with a focus on Latin America and study in Spain and Mexico. She landed in an entry-level State Department program that turned out to be “a lot of paper writing.”
“Informational interviews are very important because there are a lot of job titles out there that can be misleading,” she said. “But when you peel back the layers of what the job is you may find that it is something you want to do.”
She started to network and interview for other positions, which took her to a newly created job with a contractor in the U.S. government’s Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization, managing the budget of a $350 million assistance program. She later was deployed to South Sudan to support a peaceful transition to independence.
“I knew I could organize,” she said. “The fact that nobody had been in that position before meant I had no shoes to fill. I could craft the position I wanted.”
It was a springboard to numerous other positions. She ran the U. S. command center and monitored elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She provided analysis in conflict regions throughout Africa. She is now the field coordinator for East Africa Countering Violent Extremism Regional Support Team.
At other tables, students heard similar stories of people who had essentially hopscotched from one position to the next. As Dana Limmet, a senior manager in government affairs at Lockheed Martin told students, “Take the opportunities in front of you. Allow yourself to be open to that experience, learning from other people.”
NGOs, she pointed out, might not offer great salaries but internships are wonderful for contacts.
“Don’t be afraid to ask people to help you,” Ms. Linnet said, “This is what men are really good at, asking their buddies for help.”