Six A&S students work around the world at State Department offices

By: Kathy Hovis,  A&S Communications
Mon, 07/22/2019

Thomas Nolan ’20 is spending part of his summer helping to make a U.S. college education more possible for students in Tanzania.

He’s one of six students from the College of Arts & Sciences who are working for the U.S. Department of State, with help from Summer Experience Grants, which students can use to cover living and travel expenses when they are taking unpaid or minimally-paid positions.

The grants are available to students thanks to funding from the Student Assembly and to donations from a group of generous Arts & Sciences alumni, who understand the need to support students as they explore career possibilities. This year, 181 students applied for funding and 117 grants were awarded.

Nolan’s work at the U.S. Embassy to Tanzania in Dar es Salaam includes several projects related to educational outreach and youth engagement. He’s led a project that will connect Cornell students from East Africa with high school students from their home countries to mentor them about the U.S. college application and enrollment process. 

Nolan worked for the State Department in the U.S. Embassy to the Vatican in the fall of 2018, so this summer he was looking for a different post and lifestyle.

“Tanzania is the perfect location for utilizing both of my majors – Government and Near Eastern Studies,” he said. “Working at an Embassy, I get a firsthand look at the ways in which the U.S. government interacts with problems on a global scale. I’ve studied humanitarian aid and human rights extensively at Cornell, so working with the Public Diplomacy Section is particularly interesting. Not only do I get to witness firsthand the U.S. government’s humanitarian aid efforts in Tanzania, but I also get to be a part of assisting in the provision of this aid.”

An added bonus – he’s taking Swahili lessons, which he plans to continue when he returns to campus in the fall.

Government major Alexis Petterson’s ’21 summer position with the U.S. Consulate in Barcelona, Spain, allows her to help American citizens with various problems while they’re abroad.

“The Summer Experience Grant (SEG) has been a complete lifesaver and has resolved my financial concerns,” she said. “With the SEG, I was able to secure fantastic, convenient housing, and it is a relief to know that all of my transportation and food needs are covered, as well. Without the SEG, I would not have been able to participate in the State Department internship.”

Along with her regular duties, Petterson has been able to tour prison and detention facilities and attend the consulate’s Fourth of July party — “it was a privilege to get the chance to interact with the many political officials and notable guests who were in attendance.”

Alexis Petterson at a 4th of July celebrationAlexis Petterson '21, far right, at the U.S. Consulate in Barcelona, Spain's Fourth of July party.

Petterson said her experiences in “Inside Europe” a class taught by Christopher Way, associate professor of government, helped her to understand the turbulent political climate within Catalonia, which she’s now experiencing firsthand.

Graham Cohen ‘20, a College Scholar, has worked on a host of projects during his summer at the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, including a speech for the ambassador. He’s also written briefings, translated and worked on extradition documents and attended a training session put on by the U.S. Marshals.

His days are filled with meetings with interesting people — “It might be a Dominican Congressperson from whom we could gather insight on current political happenings throughout the country, or a United Nations representative to discuss in-country efforts to aid refugees, or refugees themselves advocating for their rights, or a businessperson seeking U.S. support on a commercial venture, or an economist who can explain the financial implications of potential political events,” Cohen said. “I must take meticulous notes because I will often need to report back pertinent info.”

For Cohen, the summer experience is helping him decide what path to pursue after graduation. He’s also had the chance to meet some of his sports heroes.

“As a lifelong baseball fan, the most exciting part of the job thus far was when I got the chance to meet three Dominican Hall of Famers who were being honored at the Embassy's 4th of July celebration,” he said. “They all signed my Embassy jersey and I took the chance to tell them I had played as them in video games – it honestly was surreal.”

The Summer Experience Grant money helped cover Cohen’s plane ticket and some business attire for his job.

“It has been my dream to be a diplomat at the State Department since I was at least 12 years old,” said Isabella Paternostro ‘21, a China & Asia-Pacific studies major who is working in Washington, D.C. for the Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs in the Office of Maritime Southeast Asia, an office that works with six countries. “Working as a desk officer at the State Department is definitely the kind of job I would like to have one day. I have never felt so alive as I have during this internship.”

Paternostro begins her days either at 8 a.m. or 6:30 a.m. — the early days are when she’s compiling the "morning report," skimming through all of the information that the six embassies send to the office overnight and summarizing those for the bureau front office. Some of her other duties include researching papers on Philippine-China relations, writing talking points for the assistant secretary and attending think tank meetings and reporting back. She says she’s learned the importance of clear and concise writing and speaking.

“I get to see foreign policy as it happens,” she said. “Throughout the day I will prepare for a conference or do some papers and then, as I ride the Metro home, I will hear about the implications of our policies on the news.”

She’s also learning some inside tricks of working with diplomats. “I learned to always keep my right hand free (in case I need to shake someone's hand) and that diplomats always walk fast,” she said.

Other State Department placements include Christine Deep ‘20, who is in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs Office of Economic Policy in Washington, D.C. and Kyler Phillips ’21 who is at the Consulate General of the U.S. in Guangzhou, China.


   Thomas Nolan plants a tree with students