Why I Serve: Mission, Values, Adventure

My journey with the U.S. Department of State came full circle in 2014 when I was selected to be the Diplomat-in-Residence (DIR) for Southern California, based at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. I found myself back in my home state of California after nearly two decades living abroad and on the East Coast. As a DIR, I was part of the Department team dedicated to recruiting talented candidates from diverse communities across the country. Covering the Southern California and Hawaii regions, I engaged over 5,000 individuals and close to 40 academic institutions and professional organizations to explain the importance of U.S. diplomacy and promote our career, fellowship and internship opportunities to students and members of the general public. I attended dozens of career fairs at colleges and universities where I met bright, enthusiastic students eager to learn more about public service careers in international affairs. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. I was able to generate interest among a new generation of public servants and to share information about the myriad ways Americans of all stripes and backgrounds can play a role in our foreign policy organization.

Sixteen years earlier, as a sophomore at Georgetown University, I had attended a career fair and met a DIR who introduced me to the Foreign Affairs Fellowship, now known as the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship. I had just recently graduated from St. Ignatius College Preparatory, a Jesuit high school in California whose mission is to help students grow into men and women committed to social justice, leadership, and service. And I knew I wanted to pursue a career in public service – perhaps working in state or local government in my home state and hoping to give back to the community in which I was born and raised. 

Meeting with Pepperdine University Master in Public Policy students with a global perspective [State Department Photo/Courtesy of M. Los Banos]

Though I attended the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown, I admittedly never considered joining the Foreign Service until my chance encounter with the Diplomat-in-Residence. I’d never before met a Foreign Service officer and grew up knowing very little about the Department of State. So I really didn’t have the first clue about how to pursue a career in diplomacy. Interestingly enough, when I served as DIR in California, the students I met expressed the same sentiments to me! So I did more research on the fellowship and the Foreign Service and was attracted to the Department’s mission and the extraordinary opportunities to serve my country, while learning different languages, living overseas, and experiencing new cultures. The fellowship offered mentoring, professional development opportunities and financial support for the remainder of my undergraduate studies and graduate school. It seemed like a winning formula for a financial aid and work study student with a flair for adventure who was looking for ways to finance an education and pursue a public service career track. So I threw my hat in the ring and applied. After 14 years of service as a U.S. diplomat, I can tell you that never in my wildest dreams would I have ever imagined being able to serve my country as an official representative of the U.S. government overseas. As a child of an immigrant Filipino family, growing up in an Asian and Latin-American enclave of the San Francisco Bay area, I was far removed from the world of diplomacy and foreign policy that awaited me.

I began my career as a Consular Officer at our Embassy in Ankara, Turkey where I helped American citizens who confronted illness, tragedy and loss and assisted Turkish citizens traveling to the U.S. to study, work or conduct business. I also represented the U.S. position on anti-terrorism financing and anti-money laundering and narcotics issues as a member of the embassy’s economic reporting unit in Turkey. Later as a watch officer in our Operations Center, the Department’s communications and crisis management center, I was part of a round-the-clock team devoted to briefing the Secretary of State and other principals on world events and emerging crises and facilitating their telephone diplomacy with foreign leaders. My initial foray into public diplomacy –- my chosen Foreign Service career track –- came as the Cultural Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Managua, Nicaragua. I promoted U.S. culture and values among indigenous communities, youth, and under-represented populations through professional, academic, sports and cultural exchange programs. In a country where access to U.S. educational opportunities is a dream for most, I had the chance to help talented young students achieve opportunities to study in the U.S. on Fulbright scholarships or to participate in one of our English language learning programs, giving them the skills to access expanding economic and job markets in their country. 

After two years in Nicaragua and three in Rome, Italy as head of the Public Affairs section at our Mission to the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Agencies, I returned to Department headquarters in Washington, D.C. to help lead the cultural programs division in our Bureau of Cultural and Educational Affairs, which develops, coordinates and directs the implementation of cultural exchange programs in the arts and humanities worldwide in support of U.S. foreign policy objectives. Our grant partnerships with non-profit organizations in the American arts communities allow us to send some of America’s most innovative and talented citizens overseas to help us forge enduring relationships even among the world’s most isolated and closed societies. As the grants officer for our American Music Abroad program, I traveled to three U.S. metropolises to audition American musicians not only for their musical prowess but their ability to engage foreign publics through teaching workshops, collaborative performances with local artists, and community events that could help build common bonds between Americans and citizens around the world. 

Currently, I work in the Office of the Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources where I help develop our strategies to ensure we have the tools to recruit, retain, and sustain a diverse, inclusive and talented workforce. In this role, I have the great privilege of making lasting investments in our organization’s people and helping shape the future of our diplomatic corps. I also had the unique opportunity to sit down with Secretary Kerry and record a podcast conversation about leadership and our efforts to create an organization that reflects the face of America. 

I’m humbled by the incredible opportunities a career in the Foreign Service has afforded me to serve my country alongside hard-working and dedicated colleagues in the U.S. and overseas. I’m once again living thousands of miles from my family and beloved home state of California, but I know my work helps make the world a more secure, democratic, and prosperous place for their benefit, and I agree wholeheartedly with Secretary Kerry that, “There aren’t a lot of jobs in any field where you get to do what we do every day –- which is wake up and, in ways large and small, make the world a little safer and our country stronger.”

About the Author: Michelle Los Banos serves as Human Resources' Advisor for Diversity and Inclusion at the U.S. Department of State.

For more information:

  • Learn more about career opportunities or internships at the U.S. Department of State visit careers.state.gov.
  • Read more stories from foreign affairs professionals in our latest Medium publication, Modern Diplomacy.
  • Listen to the State Department's "Conversation on Leadership" Podcast featuring Michelle Los Banos and Secretary John Kerry. 
Michelle Los Banos in Khulna, Bangladesh with Entrepreneurial Women Participating in the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development’s Microfinance and Technical Support Project. [Courtesy of M. Los Banos]
May 7, 2016

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