Working abroad a big help on the Hill

Congressmen expect their staff to keep them up-to-date on the latest foreign-policy debates, and those who have worked overseas say that first-hand knowledge can be crucial.

Michael Shank, communications director and policy advisor for Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), said: “Staffers have a great amount of responsibility for informing their bosses about international issues. When staffers can’t experience that on the ground, it limits their ability to inform the debate. The extent to which they can get into the country, the better their policy information is going to be.”

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Shank, a doctoral candidate at George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, has worked in Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, South Korea, Singapore, India, Pakistan, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, Syria, Morocco, Spain and France, and has traveled on staff delegations to Venezuela and Cuba, recently paying his own way through Afghanistan.

Mainly working in conflict zones, Shank’s experience abroad led him to his current position on Capitol Hill. 

“I came to Washington, having worked in the field and seen the impact of U.S. foreign policy, to work on systems-level change and structural change,” he said.

Other staffers echoed similar sentiments, arguing that seeing the impact of U.S. policy for themselves had left them better informed.

Ahmed Bhadelia, also employed in Honda’s office as director of online communications and a legislative correspondent, worked with small farmers in Chiapas, Mexico, on food security issues.

“More than anything, my work abroad gave me contextual understanding of the world around me,” Bhadelia said. “That is to say, how each and every action here in the United States can have unintended consequences on the lives of people in the farthest reaches of the world. I know that seems obvious, but to see it, experience it and work with it is a completely different animal.”

Especially with regards to Afghanistan and Iraq, direct knowledge of either country can help craft policy in Washington.

Steven Moore, chief of staff for Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), began working for the congressman after spending three and a half years overseas, including two separate trips to Iraq.

Employed by the International Republican Institute, Moore spent his days with democratic activists in Iraq, helping to show them how democracy works and to build political parties. Despite the inherent dangers in his everyday experience, Moore would recommend international work to others looking to start a career on the Hill.

“Going abroad and working abroad broadens your experience — it gives you a depth of understanding about how the world works [that] you just don’t get in America; it’s a big world,” he said. “On Capitol Hill it’s easy to get myopic, and focus on what’s in front of you. People on Capitol Hill do better getting very, very smart on a small set of issues.”

Moore said there are a number of differences between his current job and his previous positions abroad.

“On my most stressful day on Capitol Hill no one’s trying to blow me up. Physically blow me up. [In Iraq] you’re always concerned about car bombs, being in the wrong place at the wrong time and automatic-weapon fire,” he said.

Despite the clear contrasts, staffers who have spent time in a different culture say it’s an experience that stays with them. Bhadelia said it continues to affect his job now. 

“Even today, after having been with the Honda office nearly two years, I look at every piece of legislation I work with or every communications piece I release with this external lens,” he said.

He recommended international work to anyone searching for a job in the Capitol building. 

“I don’t mean volunteer tourism; I mean the actual ‘down in the dirt, away from the comforts of home’ work. It will have a profound effect on all of your preconceived notions about life inside and outside the United States. It will make you think harder, look at things more critically and make you life-long friends,” he said.