Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have an international career in diplomacy?
On this episode, we hear from Sharlina Hussain-Morgan, a foreign service officer, who is also a child of immigrants from Bangladesh. Sharlina has a B.A. in Political Science from MIT, and a MA in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown. After working abroad in Egypt, she met a girlfriend who was a Foreign Service Officer and encouraged her to apply to become a Diplomat herself. Sharlina had never really imagined taking this path, but she took the steps and has now been in the field for nearly 10 years. Sharlina details what the process looks like to apply for the Foreign Service, what they’re looking for in applicants, and what are the glamorous and not-so-glamorous parts of the job. Sharlina’s story is a great reminder to pursue your passions despite parental pressure to take a more traditional path.
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Critical Language Scholarship Program – A summer study abroad opportunity for American college and university students to learn languages essential to America’s engagement with the world, sponsored by the U.S. State Department.
Sharlina: I was 25 and they looked at me and they’re like, “Wait, you’re here representing the United States Government?” They were just floored because they didn’t expect a 25-year-old Brown woman who actually spoke literally the same language as their own parents.
Priscilla: Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I’m your host Priscilla Esquivel Weninger – proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat each Friday, as we dive into a special guest’s story, and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place! Let’s get started.
Priscilla: Hey, have you ever wondered what it would be like to have an international career that takes you all over the world? Well, on this episode, you get to hear from US Diplomat Sharlina Hussein Morgan, who breaks down what it means to be a diplomat, what it takes to succeed and what it’s been like to be a child of immigrants from Bangladesh, traveling abroad, and representing the US Government. Sharlina is an MIT and Georgetown grad, and she keeps it real on the glamorous and not so glamorous moments of working abroad.
Priscilla: Sharlina, welcome to the show. I’m so excited to have you here today.
Sharlina: Thank you so much for having me.
Priscilla: So today we’re going to be discussing the topic of what it’s like to be a US diplomat. So why don’t we just get started with you sharing a little bit about your personal background.
Sharlina: Thanks again for having me. My name is Sharlina Hussein Morgan. I was born and raised in New York. I grew up in Queens, New York City for the first 12 years of my life before we moved upstate to Upstate, New York. My parents are originally immigrants from a small country called Bangladesh, which is a little bit east to India. And they’ve been in the United States the longer they’ve been in Bangladesh. And I grew up with an older brother. And I guess, I don’t know if you could say a typical Asian or South Asian-American family, my parents are first-generation, my brother and I were the first in our family to go to college in the United States.
And it was very much of a working class immigrant story. My parents first started out when they first came to the United States, they were working in Burger King. And my parents scraped together money because my dad had a dream of having a small business in the US. So they finally were able to buy a small hotel in Upstate New York, which is where we settled when I was in my middle school years. And they put together enough money to put my brother and I through school. And my brother followed the immigrant parent expectations and became an engineer, but I was the black sheep and I was very interested in foreign affairs.
We’re a Muslim South Asian-American family. And I was in high school when 9/11 happened, which really was a formative experience for me. And so it really encouraged me to look more outside of the United States and think about what our relationship is with other countries around the world. So that’s where I landed to study for undergrad, political science, but at an atypical place, at MIT.
Priscilla: How did you end up at MIT?
Sharlina: Yeah, it’s really funny. A lot of people were like, “I didn’t even know that political science is a major offered at MIT.” And actually it’s one of the top 10 in the country. But I came from a very interesting perspective. My brother was an engineer. He really encouraged me to pursue my interest in math and science. I was really good in math and science when I was younger, but I didn’t like it as something that I wanted to pursue as a career. But so when it came time to apply to colleges, I kind of applied to MIT as a fluke, but I wanted to go somewhere that was diverse and wanted diverse experiences. And when I visited MIT, I was very impressed with how much the students got along with each other. And I didn’t want this super competitive environment. And so when I got accepted, I was just amazed and couldn’t believe it. And I think the entire four years at MIT, I was like, “Were they sure about accepting me?” But, you know, I think that comes with a lot of the experience as a first-generation, especially you doubt yourself and you’re not quite sure if they really meant to include you in the space, but it really was a great place. I was looking at other colleges that are typical for liberal arts, but honestly it was really a great place for me to go, even though not many diplomats really start out at MIT. It’s not a place where you learn about the foreign service. You spend a lot more time thinking quantitatively versus qualitatively about different topics and career ideas.
Priscilla: Cool. So when you were in college, did you start to think about becoming a US diplomat? When did that come onto your radar?
Sharlina: Yeah, it didn’t really come onto my radar that much. A lot of my colleagues telling me about their experiences about how long they applied and were tenacious in pursuing diplomacy as a career. And I applaud them for it. Just I didn’t really know that was a field for me to consider. And honestly still just fighting my parents’ expectations. My dad and my mom were like, “Okay. If you’re not going to become a doctor or an engineer, I think the one last option is lawyer.” And they were just still pushing me to do that. And it didn’t really come to fruition. And so I was fighting a lot of different things and I was interested in a lot of different things. And so when I left college, I was working in DC because I knew that’s where I wanted to be for policy, but I still was lost. There are so many people who learn early on that they want to become a diplomat. But for me, I was still very lost and I just knew I wanted to work in policy. I wanted to work in international affairs or domestic policy and how things work on the Hill. It took me a while to land to where I am now.
Priscilla: What was that first job for you in DC? And how did that take you to realizing, “Oh, diplomacy is something I might want to pursue”?
Sharlina: Yeah. I mean, I actually was working in consulting in Washington on education issues and it was paying the bills to be honest, but it wasn’t really speaking to my soul. And the good thing about landing in a place like Washington is that you are more aware of what other opportunities there are out there, especially in the policy realm. So I actually left my consulting gig for unpaid internships, which sadly until this day are really still very common in Washington, but they have become almost the expectation to pave your resume into something more settled. And I did two different unpaid internships to see what I was interested in. And one was on the Hill, to see how much I would be interested in working on international affairs on the Hill. And while it was interesting, it wasn’t the kind of stuff that was really keeping me excited.
And so I actually went to grad school at Georgetown and that’s when I started learning more about foreign service. I mean, Georgetown has a school of foreign service. I wasn’t at their school but I was at the school of government, and I was learning more and more about these options. But I still, to be very honest, I knew it was there but I didn’t really take it seriously as something that I could do, because I think I still had a lot of imposter syndrome and not thinking that I could be a diplomat.
And so when I graduated from Georgetown, once again, I was successful in getting a different scholarship, which anyone who’s interested in learning languages, it’s the critical language scholarship by the State Department. And I moved to Egypt to learn and participate in that program. And when it finished, I was at a crossroads where I had to decide what I wanted to do. And so I decided to stay. And I was working there as a consultant on gender issues and working on human rights issues, and a girlfriend of mine who was actually a foreign service officer, she told me, “Hey, why don’t you apply?” And I was like, “Why me?” She’s like, “Why not you?” And the great thing about the foreign service process is that it’s a very transparent and easy process. Easy not in the sense of getting in, but it’s not like a closed interview situation. It’s you have to take a test and then you keep progressing through that process. And then if you’re lucky, you make it all the way at the end.
Priscilla: So how long were you in Egypt?
Sharlina: I was in Egypt for almost a year. I was there right up until approximately six months before the Arab Springs. I was there from 2009 to 2010. And that was a really good experience for me. I mean, COVID times are a little different right now, but in a normal circumstance, I do recommend for folks who are interested in working in international affairs to dive in and get out there.
Priscilla: Do you feel like when you apply to become a US diplomat, your international experience factored into getting accepted or was that not really as much of a factor?
Sharlina: I think it was definitely a factor, but I say it with a disclaimer, to say that just because you don’t have international experience doesn’t mean you could not be selected. I think it was important for me because it was a formative experience for me. When you go through the foreign service officer process, they’re looking for a specific type of person. And to be able to demonstrate the skills that you need to not only succeed but thrive in a career like this, the kind of skills I got while I was in Egypt, I think, were really instrumental to show that I was ready for that.
Priscilla: For those who are listening and are wondering, well, what does a US diplomat actually do? What were you sort of imagining when you were applying? So before you became one.
Sharlina: Yeah. Honestly, I didn’t really know. My girlfriend who was there was already on her first assignment in Egypt as a diplomat. And she’s what we call a public diplomacy, ConEd officer. And I am also a public diplomacy ConEd officer. And in plain terms, you can come in to being a diplomat with different specialties, so you can work in public diplomacy, which is what I do, which is basically the public affairs arm of the US Government overseas. And you could be working on politics. You’ll be a political officer, which is looking at what are the political issues in the country you’re in economically. And then there are other types of specialties that you could work. And also, of course, last but very much not least, one of our most important types of officers are what we called consular officers, which is making sure that we can provide every service that an American citizen would need overseas. And as you can imagine, during COVID times, has been instrumental to make sure we can provide consular services to our American citizens when they’re in a moment of crisis outside of the United States. So those are the different types of officers, but at the end of the day, we could all be doing any type of that work, because we like to say that it’s what we — the term, the phrase is very well-known in our line of work is called the needs of the service. You sign up to be a diplomat because you’re signing up to help and represent not only United States but also to be there in a time of crisis for anything an American would need.
And so even if I’m a public diplomacy officer, if I’m overseas and my colleague asked me, “Hey, can you help with making sure that this American citizen is safe?” That is my job. And I make sure that I can assist with that. But in general on a day-to-day, it really looks very different every day. And I think that’s what intrigued so many of us to still stay in, even though it can be a hard lifestyle because it’s not the same every day, as you can imagine, not just COVID but there are crises and things that happen anytime and anywhere.
Once I joined the foreign service, I actually moved back to Egypt. That was my second assignment. But when I was there, it was during a time of protracted crisis after the Arab Spring. And any time you move somewhere, you may think that it will be the same every day, but it actually can be very different because of whatever is happening at that time. And so I think that for someone who’s interested in this line of work, you have to be willing to throw caution to the wind a little bit and be willing to fly by the seat of your pants sometimes, which to be very honest, I didn’t come in with that type of perspective. It’s really funny because so many of us are so type A and we like to have things controlled. And so I think that the funny thing is we hold on to and control the little things we can because everything else is so unpredictable, if that makes sense.
Priscilla: Yeah. And so you talked a little bit about how there’s this test and this process, what are they testing? Is it logic, aptitude? And then how long was that process for you?
Sharlina: So for me, apparently, it was not that long. It took me a little bit under a year, but I understand that the process has actually been truncated a little bit. So to answer your first part of the question, basic level of what issues may be occurring throughout the world. So whether it’s COVID or a health crisis, economic crisis, or nuclear weapons in the Korean peninsula, et cetera. So a little bit of aptitude, of course. But whenever I talk to mentees or others who are just interested in this type of work and they’re like, “What do I need to do to prepare for something like this?” All I say are a couple of things, you need to just be a regular reader of something like The Economist or the New York Times, and just brush up on your middle school slash high school civics or AP Government, because there is definitely a test of what was this amendment and basic elements of American civic background. So those are the two basic aspects of the things that you need.
And then, of course, something that is very crucial to this type of career, which is writing, and not writing long papers. So it’s not about writing long papers. And if anyone who’s interested in not just foreign affairs but just policy in general, I encourage them to think through how to write something short and succinct. So when we say, when you want to prepare for any type of interview, they ask you to prepare your elevator pitch, right? So elevator pitch, but the written style. If you had to be in the elevator, so to speak, but in a written form, how could you write in maybe even three sentences what are the most important aspects of X issue? And that is what they’re looking for also, your ability to in the very quick situation, how quickly can you synthesize information and then convey it to someone during a moment of crisis, which happens as you can imagine all the time.
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Priscilla: So once you became a diplomat and it was official, what did you realize that you enjoyed the most about maybe your first assignment or maybe even your second assignment and what interested you about it?
Sharlina: Yeah. I was incredibly lucky. My first assignment was in London in the United Kingdom. And as many people maybe already know, London is a really fantastic city, and I’m a New Yorker. So that’s really hard for me to admit. But it was incredible. I was there during the 2012 Olympics. One part of my portfolio in what we call our public diplomacy shop was cultural affairs. And cultural affairs, what does that mean? It’s like, how can we bridge the cultural divide between the US and whatever country you’re in? And so, of course, whoever’s listening will be like, “Okay. Who cares?” What kind of cultural divide is there between the US and the UK besides beer preferences, right? And that’s why it was actually interesting, when you get your first assignment, it’s this very momentous thing that we call flag day. And you get a flag for where you’re going and your family is there to support you and cheer you on because you don’t know where you’re going until that moment. And I got this flag for the United Kingdom. And I was like, ‘What? I thought I was going somewhere else. I don’t know, Cape Verde or something very different and new.” And so I was like, “Oh, this is going to be not so great.” But then I got there and I was like, “Wow, London is such an incredible city. And the UK is actually so diverse.” As you can imagine, London could be as diverse, if not more diverse than New York City. I actually don’t know the numbers. And so for me, actually, what was really interesting was that as a child of Bangladeshi immigrants, there are actually a lot of Bangladeshi and South Asian immigrants to the United Kingdom as well. And at that time, so this was 2011, I was also working on the 10th anniversary slash memorial for 9/11. And at that time, I don’t know if readers or listeners can remember, but we were still very much mired in foreign policy blunders in the Middle East. And so a lot of the immigrants to the United Kingdom took that very seriously and they actually harbored very serious anti-American sentiment. And so for me, my boss was great. He was just like, “You’re just going to go out and learn on the job.” And so he put me out, there was an opportunity to engage with the local university, with a lot of Bangladeshi- British students.
My first tour, I was 25 and they looked at me and they’re like, “Wait, you’re here representing the United States Government?” They were just floored because they didn’t expect a 25-year-old Brown woman who actually spoke literally the same language as their own parents. I grew up speaking Bangla in my house because my mother was like, “I refuse to let this language not get passed down to the next generation.” And so she made sure that we only spoke Bangla in our house growing up. And lo and behold, here I am on my first tour, and all of a sudden I had to flip from English to Bangla and speak about the war to these students as if their face had already not been amazed. And they were like, “Wait, she’s speaking Bangla to us and explaining the Iraq war to me.” And I was just like that to me was just incredible because I realized that I think it really hit home all of a sudden that I was this representative of the US Government, and I had this immense power to shape narratives and change how we talk about things. And I don’t want to say we change minds because I think public affairs means you’re trying to change the narrative or trying to change the opinions. And we can’t change the opinions of other citizens overnight, especially on some topics that are so, so complicated, the US involvement in the Middle East. But me speaking in Bangla as a 25-year-old Brown American diplomat, I think, was just a moment for them to realize that it’s really easy to vilify the US as this kind of amorphous thing that they read about in the paper. But when they see someone who looks just like them, who is able to become a diplomat in the United States, it just floored them that that could even be. And so I think that was a moment where I was like, “Not only do I have power, but look at what is possible in the United States that honestly is not possible in most parts of the world.” And so that time, it was kind of that amazing experience that I always look back at.
Priscilla: That’s so powerful. And it seems like it was like a full circle moment for you.
Sharlina: Yeah, absolutely. And there I was, I had no idea as a 25-year-old I could even have this power.
Priscilla: Very cool. So what were the most glamorous and then the not so glamorous parts of your job? If you had to keep it real with people, what are the parts that maybe are not so exciting or just more challenging? What would those be for you?
Sharlina: So there are definitely so many glamorous moments in the story I just told you. It doesn’t sound glamorous probably to the average person, but for me it was because I was like, “Wow, look at me being able to change opinions.” But there were definitely the ones I think a lot of people were like, “This is definitely glamorous.” So part of my cultural affairs job was, at that time, Sundance actually had not broken outside the United States yet. And we worked with Robert Redford’s team to get Sundance into the United Kingdom. That was really glamorous for me to meet him and to work with some of the stars and the film folks out of the US, who are coming to the United Kingdom.
And also, I’m a huge sports fan. I was a kid in New York City in the ’90s with my brother, so I love basketball. And so I was able to work with the NBA folks in the United Kingdom and help them during, of course, at that time 2012 during the Olympic year to work with all the amazing basketball players who came to London. I met Grant Hill for the first time as part of a sports diplomacy reception. And I was like, “Man, you really are tall in real life.” That was amazing as a kid who grew up in the ’90s. And so that was really fantastic.
But yes, there are definitely a lot more not glamorous moments. What the really not glamorous part is you’re moving every few years. You’re leaving and uprooting friends and/or family members, depending on where you are. And you’re living far away from the United States. You miss the holidays. You miss things like Trader Joe’s, which sounds super silly. But when you’re far away, all of a sudden you start to realize the random things that you miss. I’ve been working in Washington the last few years, so it’s been really great. The ability to just have a need and then just go out to Target five seconds later is amazing. You cannot do that in other countries. So I think it is important to remind others that whether you’re working in foreign affairs as a US Government person or just in general like you’re working overseas, there are many not glamorous moments.
And I think the other thing to say as a representative of the US Government, I think we are also people, right? So we all have our own perspectives. We all come in very informed and educated about a lot of different things and we have strong opinions. And at the end of the day, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the policy matches with your opinion everywhere you go. And so that is definitely the not glamorous part. And that has happened throughout my almost 10 years in this career anywhere I’ve been. You’re there to represent what the folks back in Washington deem as the essential part of our bilateral relationship between that country and the United States. So as long as we’re advancing our most important US interests, that’s what your job is. So I think that’s important to have that get checked as well.
Priscilla: Well, my last question for you, what’s the most fun story that you can tell about your time working abroad?
Sharlina: Well, a fun story is that when I was working in London on the Olympics, I was working with my colleagues. And keep in mind, this is my first tour. So I’m still very junior and I was working on a reception/an event, actually for, at that time, First Lady Michelle Obama. And we were working around the clock to make sure everything was set up right. All the athletes were coming in and the folks who were invited were coming in. And I was working with the First Lady’s team from the White House would come in to also work what we call their advance team.
So I was working with them and we’re all so exhausted. And I was just like, “Oh my God. I can’t believe this is happening. All these people are coming.” And I got chewed out by one of the folks from the White House team because they were like, “Does this podium look exactly right?” So in public affairs, right, we set up the events, we have to do all these things. We have to think through every possible scenario. And so we’re right off the podium, setting up all these things. And I was like, “Yeah, everything looks right. The flag is in the right place. Everything, the backdrop, et cetera.” And they’re like, “I don’t think this podium looks right for the First Lady.” And I was like, “What?” And they were like, “Do you know how tall she is?” And I was like, “No. I know she’s tall but I don’t know how tall.” And they’re like, “Oh, she’s this” — I don’t even remember anymore, but she’s this tall, and she likes to wear a kitten heels. So I had to lie down on the floor by the podium to make sure we had just the right level of what is it called? The risers so that someone can — so that the First Lady — and I was so nervous.
And so right when that event happened, and the First Lady who is by the way, one of the most kindest down to earth people I have ever met, she stood on that riser. And I don’t know if anyone around me noticed that I had a huge sigh of relief, but it was like just right. It was the first event that was launched to kick off the entire weekend of events for the First Lady for the Olympics. And so I was so worried and mortified, but then it all was fine. And in the end she was so thankful and gracious and so sweet that I was like, “Thank God that worked out,” but let’s hope that doesn’t happen again.
Priscilla: Oh, my God. Wow. That probably felt so high stakes too, even though it’s like a minor detail. Oh, my God.
Sharlina: Yeah. So minor, right? Especially for a junior officer, we were like, “Okay. This is a lot.” So it just goes to show that every little thing that you see has so many intricate details in the back that someone is doing. So now it’s funny whenever I look at any kind of event. I’m like, “Oh, who did that? Oh, who did the Twitter?” Who was actually running that Twitter because that was probably the staff member, and I think they did a really good job.
Priscilla: Very cool. Well, Sharlina, this has been such a great conversation. I’m excited for people that are interested in this career path to listen to your story and to feel encouraged because I loved what you said about not letting imposter syndrome get in the way of your dreams. And you went after it, and you’ve been living your dream. So really cool. Thank you.
Sharlina: Great. Thank you so much, Priscilla.
Priscilla: Thanks for tuning in to the Early Career Moves Podcast! Be sure to visit ECMPodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes, and become a part of our newsletter community. And if you loved this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.