Is 'America First' Crushing the Dreams of These Students?

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Why you should care

Because these are the minds who power the government.

After President Trump’s election, liberal Washington, D.C., could have passed for a scene in a zombie apocalypse drama. Residents walked through the streets, sullen and dazed, avoiding eye contact or crying silently. Yes, it was dramatic — and it wasn’t all because of ideological tensions: Many Washingtonians were about to lose their jobs. But the outcome also wormholed a particular slice of the population into a strange sort of limbo: students who were about to graduate with master’s degrees from some of the country’s most prestigious international affairs programs.

Grad students at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service (SFS), historically a major source of talent for the U.S. State Department, went through a period of shock. So Daniel Byman, senior associate dean of undergraduate affairs, hosted a series of town halls, which he billed as informal chats over pizza about the future of foreign affairs. What he really meant was the future of the field to which his students had devoted tens of thousans of dollars and two years of their lives. At one meeting in an auditorium with about 50 seats, students packed the place, spilling out into the halls. Would the State Department still hire? What would foreign policy even look like in the era of America First?

The ability to do good and public service no longer means you have to go through the government.

Steve Feldstein, former deputy assistant secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

Glass-half-full grad students at Georgetown and D.C.’s Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Affairs (SAIS) saw unexpected opportunity. Some nimble Dems from the class of 2016 filled vacated posts for the last few weeks or months of the Obama administration. Other soon-to-be-freshly-minted Republican grads with similarly scrawny résumés are inquiring about political appointments without getting hooted out of the room. Still others are planning to pursue a career on Uncle Sam’s payroll, because they’re inspired by Trump’s new style or, as career advisers repeatedly tell OZY, “you’re serving the country, not a president.” Then there’s the sage counsel of John McLaughlin, a professor at SAIS and former deputy director and acting director of the CIA: Forgo political appointments, but “man the barricades” with smart grads.

Overall, though, most grads are still mapping new paths into a murky future. With hiring freezes, some 18 government agencies on the budget chopping block and a lightly staffed State Department, a Plan B or Plan C might include job hunting in the private sector or playing brainiac at a think tank. When it comes to foreign policy, “there’s really a tussle taking place at the moment,” says Steve Feldstein, the most recent deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. “It’s hard to say what worldview will win out.” That sort of uncertainty has students questioning what ideals they would be promoting in a foreign policy posting. “When you’re at State and you’re working in Peru, and the undersecretary [position] isn’t filled, what are you going to be asked to do?” asks Jean-Amiel Jourdan, head of global careers at SAIS. Those are the types of queries students bring to his office.

Hiring freezes and sequestration, though, are not new. In fact, this administration’s plans may accelerate an already developing trend of young grads choosing nongovernmental paths to “public service.” Even before Trump’s election, about 39 percent of Georgetown master’s graduates went into government, and around 40 percent headed for the private sector. A few years ago, those statistics skewed more heavily toward the public sector, says Anne Steen, director of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service graduate career center. “The ability to do good and public service no longer means you have to go through the government,” says Feldstein.

Students seeking careers in defense industries might even see a boon in the Trump administration’s proposed budgets and increased military spending. Indeed, SAIS’s biggest recruiter is the intelligence community, which is unlikely to change, says Jourdan. When SAIS was created more than 70 years ago, it was a school for diplomats. These days around 20 percent of grads land in the public sector. Of that 20 percent, more than half are in intelligence, defense or the Presidential Management Fellows program, which awards high-achieving master’s candidates with priority placement for government jobs — all programs excluded from the proposed budget cuts. Jourdan is seeing even bigger turnouts for recruiting events at SAIS this year.

Perhaps the most ill at ease are foreign scholars. Jourdan notes that some international first-year students, even from countries not affected by the travel ban, have turned down offers to do valuable, career-enhancing development or embassy work abroad for fear of not being able to return before they have a degree in hand. “The best we can do is show [foreign] students more than ever that the U.S. is not the ultimate job market,” says Jourdan. “This world-class education can serve their goals, being based in Lagos or Joburg [Johannesburg] or Kuala Lumpur or the Gulf, where their education will be recognized and valued.”

Buried in the shifting job market may be good news for developing countries. Now, says Jourdan, U.S.-trained elites are more open to returning home to pursue careers. It’s going to come down to a “long-term value proposition of higher education. If students come to think they could find an equally good education in foreign countries where they would be more welcome, why would they come here?” If the perception is that it may become impossible to work in the U.S., he says, it may put a plug in the brain drain.

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