After a semester abroad in Rome, Allie McRaith (’16) spent another 10 weeks in Greece. But she didn’t spend her summer island hopping—she was working at the U.S. embassy in Athens.
The U.S. embassy in Athens is one of 294 such locations around the world. Embassies and consulates handle everything from helping stranded Americans to maintaining diplomatic relations with the host country. McRaith’s internship was at the visa office in the consular section of the embassy, which meant the international affairs major had plenty to do. For the most part, it was just like any other internship—though she never had to get anyone coffee.
“In the beginning, it was very mundane work, such as filing and scanning and shredding,” McRaith said. “And then, as they realized I could do more, they let me start fingerprinting visa applicants, helping write questions for dual interviews, [and] helping answer emails and phone calls.”
The only problem? She didn’t speak Greek.
“Something I didn’t know was that a lot of embassy staff are local employees, so of the about 600 staff at the U.S. embassy in Athens, only 150 are American,” McRaith said. “The consular section is where a lot of locally employed staff work, because visa operations happen in Greek.”
All the forms she had to file were in Greek, and interviews were carried out in Greek if the applicant didn’t speak English.
“After my first week was like, ‘I can’t speak Greek, I’m going to be shredding papers for the rest of my life,’ I learned enough Greek to be able to fingerprint people and have a basic conversation on the phone,” McRaith said. Although unable to speak Greek, McRaith learned how to help applicants by connecting them to Greek employees. Being able to interact with the people behind the paperwork immediately improved the experience.
“At the end of the day, I loved my section,” she said. “Dealing with people is fun, right? They’re bringing their stories to you, and each story is different.”
Though she worked 40 hours a week, she and her fellow interns did have the opportunity to meet locals outside of the visa office.
“We were working, but it was fun, too,” she said. “All six of us lived in a house together. We would come home from work and just hang out. On the weekends, usually we traveled together.” While doing a little bit of island hopping, they enjoyed beautiful scenery and delicious food—but the best part was the people.
“The Greek people are some of the nicest human beings I have ever met,” McRaith said. “I mean, we had people open their restaurants for us on these little tiny islands and be like, ‘Oh, just come on in.’ Even if there was a huge language barrier, at a certain point food and hand gestures just kinda” —she waved her hands— “you’ll figure the rest out.”
As for whether she wants to work for the State Department after graduation, she isn’t sure. “I love to travel, and since that’s a huge part of the job, that’s a huge incentive, but it’s also hard to be moving every two or three years and just uprooting your life and moving somewhere else.” She plans to look for an internship with a non-governmental organization to get another perspective on international issues. Hopefully, an NGO would also give her a more hands-on experience.
For those who want to pursue a similar internship, McRaith has one piece of advice: apply.
“It’s a really long process, because you have to get a security clearance and sometimes that can take a while,” she said. But the experience was worth the wait. “It was a completely different experience, and maybe it’s because it happened more recently, but I look back on Greece more fondly than I do on my semester abroad.”
An internship outside of the United States can be a good alternative to a semester abroad, as it was for several of McRaith’s fellow interns. They were able to travel without having to worry about homework or credit transfers. An internship with the State Department isn’t just for international affairs or political science majors, either. “If you seem like a strong candidate, they’ll take you,” McRaith said. Although more popular embassies like those in London, Paris and Dublin can be difficult to get into, McRaith was able to get her first choice.
As McRaith said, “I’m really happy I did it. Even if I don’t end up working for the State Department, just the chance to see how that works and decide if that’s what I wanted to do as a career was priceless.”