Interning with the U.S. Department of State: Putting History into Action

February 4, 2019

During the summer of 2018, I took the opportunity to combine my training as a historian with my wish to serve my country. At the suggestion of a friend, I applied for and accepted an online internship with the (nonpartisan) Office of the Historian in the Bureau of Public Affairs in the U.S. Department of State. The Department of State’s Office of the Historian is responsible for preparing and publishing the Foreign Relations of the United States(FRUS) – a text series of collected documents on U.S. foreign relations and diplomacy – and for providing historically based studies for other parts of the Department of State. I have been lucky to work on this internship remotely in Berkeley while remaining in active correspondence with my Washington, D.C.-based supervisors. During the academic year, I am working between five and ten hours per week. Although it is unpaid, I have the opportunity to connect with folks not only in the Department of State, but across other departments related to national security – an opportunity which I hope will help support my career after finishing my PhD. 

My specific role as an intern consists of creating timelines of U.S. relations with a specific sub-Saharan country. The timelines highlight big turning points in our relationship in addition to noting the visits of respective heads of state and government and ambassadorial changes. It is our hope in constructing these timelines that diplomats stationed in our embassy in a given country can consult them to better understand how our relationship has evolved over time. I love my internship and throughout the past year, I can affirmatively state that it is the part of my professional life I most look forward to everyday – more than teaching and seminars!

My first assignment focused on Angola – a big challenge considering the United States’ history of intervention in Angola during their civil war. Throughout my weeks of crafting the timeline, I learned a great deal about our how relationship has changed. The documents I used to build the timeline mainly came from FRUS. FRUS is one of the largest primary document databases I’ve ever encountered and it is completely free and available to anyone from the general public to consult. What was especially interesting about our relationship with Angola was how we had commercial and political interests in the country even during the colonial period, which was handled by our embassy in Lisbon, Portugal. Reading about the evolution of U.S. relations with Angola – at first as a colony and then as an independent state – allowed me to explore some of the intricacies of foreign and security policy-making at the highest level. For example, I consulted documents from meetings between the National Security Council, memorandum between high level State and DoD officials, and summaries of interactions between the President and other heads of government for the Angolan Civil War years. While my internship has aided me in putting my skills as a historian into practice, it has also given me the opportunity to learn tremendously about places and time periods that I otherwise would not have had the chance to study. 

This internship has allowed me to strengthen my research and writing skills and more broadly to learn more about Africa. I am very thankful to have the opportunity to work for the United States Government, an institution which means a great deal to me. I encourage my colleagues to try an internship or volunteer experience with a company or government (local through federal) that will allow them to put their skills to use. Too often are historians caught up in the pages of a book or the myriad of characters on a word document and we can forget our potential to positively affect those around us through public service. Take the plunge and get out into the world.