For Phillip Beekman, over the 15 years he has travelled the world, the best part of his job comes less from the work he does, but the peoples he serves.
“I also think that it’s the job where you get to meet the most interesting people, and that’s one of the reasons that I joined the foreign service; [it] was to be out, see new things, meet new people, live in different countries, learn about new cultures,” Beekman said. “So, it’s been a really interesting, really interesting career so far.”
And by the time 9 a.m. rolled around on Monday, Sept. 23, the six student attendees of “Coffee with a Diplomat” found themselves starting their week with similarly interesting international insight from the diplomat and his stories of global affairs.
The hour-long info session and talk, hosted by Beekman in his second appearance this academic year and jointly presented by the Career and Professional Success services of both the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences (CEPS) and the College of Liberal Arts (COLA), saw the current diplomat in residence for New England recalling his 15 years’ worth of experiences around the world as part of the U.S. Department of State in a variety of roles in places such as the Caribbean Islands, central Europe and a host of other diplomatic hotspots. Multi-flavored munchkins and coffee courtesy of Dunkin’ Donuts accompanied the event.
For most of the event, Beekman, who also serves as a public diplomacy officer for the State Department, casually took questions from each of the students about different aspects of his career and dealing with members of foreign governments and media. When asked, for instance, about the significance of journalism in his work, the diplomat called dealing with them a “critical,” “fabulous” and “challenging” part of the process on every one of his posts.
Beekman explained that economic and political pressures in his stationed nations, as well as encounters with antagonistic journalists, added to the challenge of dealing with the local press. This led him to recall a surprising encounter on a Trinidad and Tobago live morning show over Thanksgiving, which invited him to the show to represent the country’s American embassy.
Beekman, a second tour officer at the time, anticipated questions about the holiday and turkey; one question about turkey later, however, he found himself “grilled” by intense questioning over aspects of U.S. foreign policy, such as its dealings with Cuba and involvement in Iraq, he knew very little about, all while struggling to maintain his calm and not endanger his embassy’s reputation.
Despite the experience, which he called a “bait-and-switch,” Beekman said that journalists nevertheless played a crucial role in understanding his role in his assigned country and obtaining the truth about that nation’s public affairs.
“I love working with journalists,” he said. “I think that…the intellectual curiosity that’s required to be a good journalist makes them, like, some of the most interesting people in town, so I always try to make an effort to…befriend journalists when I get to a post. I think they’re smart, and usually they’re not shy, and so after you get to know somebody, they’ll tell you the truth about what’s going on.”
Beekman also answered questions concerning how students could get involved in diplomacy and similar foreign service work during and after college, such as student applications for unpaid internships with American embassies overseas over the summer due Oct. 4. Beekman said that now is a “fantastic” time to apply, adding that the program hires 800 people every summer and about 400 people each for the fall and spring terms through its online portal.
“The best part is that I think it is the single best way to get a feel for what life in the foreign service is like, what working for the State Department would be like,” the diplomat said. “It’s a huge program…there are almost 600 different opportunities, they are literally all over the world and in Washington.”
Although Beekman dedicated most of the hour to the question-and-answer, he took the first several minutes to recall his time in the State Department and his foreign service around the world. Beekman said he began his journey following his graduation from Michigan State University, a time when he never “in a million years” imagined he would become a diplomat, having only gained his passport at age 20 during study abroad.
Despite possessing little overseas experience or language skills right out of college, even after switching his major to international affairs from political philosophy, that trip abroad introduced him to the career of a diplomat.
“I did a study abroad, had an amazing experience and found out about this job in the foreign service, so, [I’m] like, ‘who are these people’” he said. “I [had] never met a diplomat, it seemed to me like something that people like me simply don’t do…and when I found out about it, I thought, ‘well, I’ll sign up and take the test, who knows?’”
It ultimately took Beekman three tries to score a high-enough passing score on the test to qualify – a test that three times a year, per the diplomat, “thousands” take on for a chance to become a diplomat. Despite the extensive testing, he recalled that the only requirements toward becoming a diplomat stated that one must be an American citizen and 21 or older, a sigh of relief especially after he heard some of the backstories of his testing peers.
“You don’t have to be a linguist, you don’t have to have lived overseas…you didn’t even need to have a bachelor’s degree, which I always think, like, the people coming into the orientation class who don’t have a bachelor’s degree have to be super interesting, right?” he said of the training. “Like, what is their story that led them on this sort-of strange path into the State Department?”
Beekman said he spent most of his 15 years overseas in various consulates in an external relations position, where press work; management of grant, exchange and cultural programs; and embassy outreach efforts dominated his schedule. Despite the seemingly immense workload, he said that the most vital and adventurous part of his work took him, unlike many of his desk-based peers, out of the office and into the heart of the nations assigned to him.
His path of adventure also led him to his future wife, Cynthia, another foreign service officer and Michigan native like Beekman, who retrospectively called their encounter “fate.” The two met while they were both on post at Trinidad and Tobago; the trip marked his second post and her fourth overall. The two eventually married and currently have two children, ages five and eight, both of whom Beekman said are now “inducted into this lifestyle.”
Beekman told the attendees that he brought up his wife’s story as well as his own to illustrate that, despite each of them possessing different responsibilities, skills and journeys that led them to their respective careers, it takes a willingness to see the world and take part in global affairs on behalf of the United States that marks the biggest prerequisite toward being a diplomat.
“We represent America overseas, and we want to truly be representative of America,” he said. “It’s actually written into law that we have to be representative of America, so that’s why I exist…I think that there is this perception sometimes that, like, the State Department is, like, the lead institution, that you have to jump through all these kind-of elitist hoops to get into the State Department, and so I talk about my story and my wife’s story because I did none of those and she did just about all of them, and we both got in.”
Director of COLA Career and Professional Success Raul Bernal, who helped oversee the morning’s talk, said that the event marked the beginning of that week’s “Defense, Diplomacy and Intelligence Week;” running from Sept. 23 to Sept. 27. The week, per Bernal, aims to presents opportunities for UNH to strengthen its ability to recruit students intrigued by careers like Beekman’s and career paths through entities like the State Department, BAE Systems and the Air Force, all of which lead or sponsor similar events throughout the week.
“We just want to bring organizations to campus that serve a broad range of student needs,” Bernal said. “I think, historically, one of the places that’s been underserved is with students interested in public service, so we’re working across campus with our partners on campus to bring organizations like the State Department to provide an opportunity for students to…explore their interests in those career paths.”