U.S. Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Brian P. McKeon likes to joke that his decades-long career in foreign policy, serving as a key advisor in the White House, Senate and Department of Defense, came about because he “hung around, didn’t screw up and stayed loyal.’’
“It was part dumb luck and part making my own luck,’’ said McKeon, who oversees billions of dollars in U.S. foreign assistance, along with diplomatic operations around the world. “Everyone in D.C. has a story like that.”
“The main takeaway here today is that there is no one path to the career you want to do in foreign policy,’’ he told a group of FIU students and faculty gathered in Miami and via livestream from FIU in Washington, D.C., for an event on careers in foreign affairs and government.
The day-long visit was organized by the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs, in collaboration with the Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy, FIU’s Diplomat in Residence program, the Office of Career and Talent Development and FIU in DC.
“You don’t even have to be in political science or international affairs,’’ said McKeon, an attorney and former national security advisor who got his start in politics as a legislative assistant for then-Senator Joe Biden. “We need doctors and nurses, engineers and architects, law enforcement and security officers, economists. There are lots of pathways.”
Critical issues of focus for the agency over the next few decades include global health, cybercrime and climate change, he said. Beyond foreign policy, there are also foreign service positions in economics, public affairs, consular service and management, added Mignon Houston, FIU’s Diplomat in Residence.
“No matter your background, there is an opportunity for you to make a difference,’’ said Houston, who wore a broach in honor of Madeleine Albright, the first female U.S. Secretary of State who recently died.
McKeon said there was one common denominator among most of his colleagues in foreign service.
“They want to do work that matters,” he said. “You have 40 years of work ahead of you. You don’t want to wake up one morning and realize you are in a job that you hate.”
McKeon’s visit comes on the heels another high-profile visit to FIU by a top U.S. official looking to recruit students for federal jobs. Samantha Power, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, recently came to campus to sign an agreement to recruit more students from FIU, particularly from underrepresented groups.
Like Power, McKeon acknowledged that the State Department has “challenges in diversity” and has not always been “so welcoming to women and minorities.” The department is seeking to rectify that, he said, encouraging applicants from institutions like FIU, the largest Hispanic-serving university in the nation.
“We are recruiting for the future,’’ he said, noting that Congress had also expanded paid internships for the department, to provide housing and a stipend for students who might not otherwise be able to afford a summer job in D.C.
McKeon’s own senior advisor, Ernesto Alfonso, graduated from FIU and joined the U.S. Foreign Service after earning the prestigious Pickering Fellowship, the first FIU student to receive that award.
Following the event, McKeon met with FIU students and faculty engaged in State Department-funded research on a variety of Central American security issues, including a briefing on Latin American gangs presented by Jose Miguel Cruz, the director of research at the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center and Josue Sanchez, a professor in LACC.
FIU student Carissa Rodriguez joined Brian Fonseca, director of the Gordon Institute, and Bruce Vitor, associate director for research innovation, for a briefing on illegal fishing in Latin America and the ongoing violence and kidnappings in Haiti.
FIU has a long history of partnerships with U.S. government agencies for both research and recruiting student talent. In addition to the state department, FIU students and faculty have collaborative projects with USAID, the Department of Defense and other critical players such as the Organization of American States (OAS), Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).
McKeon stressed that the key to any career in public service is intellectual curiosity and strong communication skills.
“Government is a team sport. You’ve got to be able to communicate and interact with a lot of other people,’’ he said.
Scarlett Rodriguez, an international relations student and teaching assistant for FIU’s Diplomacy Lab program, asked McKeon to describe a failure he’d had in his career and how he had grown or learned from it.
Joking that introspection was not his strength, McKeon spoke about a time 20 years ago when he was working in the U.S. Senate on a nuclear test ban treaty proposal. It failed to get enough votes and McKeon said he “saw clearly in hindsight” that he and his colleagues had possibly made some false assumptions about the situation.
The lesson he said was to never be afraid to question assumptions in government. That is partly the value of diversifying the federal workforce, he added.
“When you’re working with a lot of really smart people, intellectually intimidating people, it can be so easy to go along with the room,’’ he explained. “It’s important to always challenge your assumptions and get diverse perspectives.’’
Deputy Secretary of State Brian McKeon meets with FIU students after an event on careers in foreign service and government.
McKeon listens to a briefing from student and faculty researchers on Central American security issues.
Students attended the event at FIU's Modesto A. Maidique Campus and via livestream from FIU in Washington, D.C.