Rubottom Fellow Interviews Cultural Attaché and SMU Alumna, Lydia Barraza

2021 Rubottom Foreign Service Fellow, JuliaGrace Walker, interviewed  Cultural Attaché at the US Embassy in Bangkok, Lydia Barraza, about how her experiences at SMU and outside of school prepared her for a career in the Foreign Service.

JuliaGrace Walker (JW): How did SMU prepare you for a career as an FSO?

Lydia Barraza (LB): My education at SMU prepared me both in languages because I studied Hindi for two years and in terms of understanding politics, governments, and the world around me. They have been skills that are really important to being a diplomat, understanding the different environments in which I work. The other thing that helped prepare me were the number of summer programs and the flexibility to be able to travel and do interesting things. The Tower Center supported me to be able to go be an intern at the US Embassy in India, which I would later serve at in 2010 to 2012. I also received a fellowship from Amnesty International which I was connected through my Human Rights course with Dr. Rick Halperin. Both my experience in the class and learning about political science and international studies courses, and the opportunities SMU provided me to go and develop during the summers made a huge impact on becoming an FSO.

JW: What words of advice would you share with SMU Students who are interested in a career in the Foreign Service?

LB: Be as experimental as you can. Try different parts of foreign affairs. Look for internships during the summer or opportunities, whether in Washington, D.C. or overseas.

Try to get as much varied experience as you can because that is what is going to build your understanding, your way to explain the world, help you if you want to take the Foreign Service exam, or if you are looking into another type of foreign affairs job in Washington, D.C. or abroad. You really want to have the most varied experiences possible and be able to draw on those experiences. They will also open your eyes to something new you might not have thought of.

I spent the summers during my time at SMU in India, but it turns out that I’ve had really amazing experiences in other parts of the world that I might not have been as curious to explore if had it not been for trying different things during my summers and during the normal school year at SMU.

JW: What is your favorite part about being an FSO?

LB: The best part of being an FSO is the opportunity to change jobs every couple of years and have a totally different experience. For example, I served as an Assistant Cultural Attaché in India and now I am a Cultural Attaché in Thailand, but the work is very different and the things I am learning from both of these positions is really interesting and a totally different experience. The opportunity to be able to switch up where we work and what we do every couple of years is really unique, because you don’t ever get stuck in a rut. You get just enough time to really understand the issues and try to make a difference while representing the American people, and then you get to try something brand new in a different country or go back to Washington and serve on the Washington side. The variety in what we do keeps things interesting and gives us a lot of diversity across our careers.

JW: What do you wish you had known before joining the Foreign Service?

LB: One thing I find really interesting is that a lot of people join the Foreign Service with a very specific thought about where they want to serve. They speak Spanish and they want to serve in Latin America. They speak Russian and they want to serve in former Soviet states. In my case, I speak Hindi, and I thought well India is going to be my thing. And then you really end up surprising yourself when you go in with an open mind and especially with your two first tours where you don’t have much of a say where you are going to get assigned. What you thought your career was going to look like will eventually look very different.

Some of those experiences may be ones that you wouldn’t have chosen for yourself, like my first tour was in Lagos, Nigeria, and it was something I had never been interested in and I would have never chosen for myself. But the things I learned and the experiences I had during that tour have really defined me and allowed me to keep a much more open mind about what I think is going to be interesting, the types of places and the types of work that I would like to do for the rest of my career. I think so many of us that are ambitious go in and join the State Department and we think my specialty is X, and then we are all surprised when Y and Z end up being just as interesting.

JW: If you had it to do all over again, how would you prepare differently for a life as an FSO?

LB: I really feel like I got an excellent education at SMU. I had so many opportunities to learn about the world around me from the Ethics Center to the internships I did in the summer. I had friends from diverse backgrounds at SMU. I think SMU and my experiences there gave me an excellent background to be an FSO, so no I would not change anything.

JuliaGrace Walker is a senior at Southern Methodist University working toward a B.A. in International Studies and a B.A. in Economics with a minor in Spanish. She is a member of Alpha Chi Omega sorority and Reformed University Fellowship, and she also serves as the President of SMU’s Program Council. JuliaGrace received the 2021 Rubottom Foreign Service Scholarship through the Tower Center. After completing her undergraduate studies at SMU, JuliaGrace hopes to earn a master’s degree in International Development and later pursue a career in the foreign service.