After overseas program, student stays on at U.S. embassy in Greece
September 25, 2014
By Ailee Feber ’15
After an overseas study program in Rome last spring, Allie McRaith ’16 spent 10 weeks in Greece. But she didn’t spend her summer island hopping—she was working at the U.S. embassy in Athens.
The U.S. embassy in Athens is one of 294 such locations around the world. Embassies and consulates handle everything from helping stranded Americans to maintaining diplomatic relations with the host country. McRaith’s internship was at the visa office in the consular section of the embassy, which meant the international affairs major had plenty to do. For the most part, it was just like any other internship—though she never had to get anyone coffee.
“In the beginning, it was very mundane work, such as filing and scanning and shredding,” McRaith said. “And then, as they realized I could do more, they let me start fingerprinting visa applicants, helping write questions for dual interviews, [and] helping answer emails and phone calls.”
The only problem? She didn’t speak Greek.
“Something I didn’t know was that a lot of embassy staff are local employees, so of the about 600 staff at the U.S. embassy in Athens, only 150 are American,” McRaith said. “The consular section is where a lot of locally employed staff work, because visa operations happen in Greek.”
All the forms she had to file were in Greek, and interviews were carried out in Greek if the applicant didn’t speak English.
“After my first week was like, ‘I can’t speak Greek, I’m going to be shredding papers for the rest of my life,’ I learned enough Greek to be able to fingerprint people and have a basic conversation on the phone,” McRaith said.
Though she worked 40 hours a week, she and her fellow interns did have the opportunity to meet locals outside of the visa office.
“The Greek people are some of the nicest human beings I have ever met,” McRaith said. “I mean, we had people open their restaurants for us on these little tiny islands and be like, ‘Oh, just come on in.’ Even if there was a huge language barrier, at a certain point [with] food and hand gestures—you’ll figure the rest out.”
She plans to look for an internship with a non-governmental organization to get another perspective on international issues. Hopefully, an NGO would also give her a more hands-on experience.
For those who want to pursue a similar internship, McRaith has one piece of advice: apply.
“It’s a really long process because you have to get a security clearance and sometimes that can take awhile,” she said. But the experience was worth the wait. “It was a completely different experience, and maybe it’s because it happened more recently, but I look back on Greece more fondly than I do on my semester abroad.”
An internship outside of the United States can be a good alternative to a semester abroad, as it was for several of McRaith’s fellow interns. They were able to travel without having to worry about homework or credit transfers. An internship with the State Department isn’t just for international affairs or political science majors, either.
“If you seem like a strong candidate, they’ll take you,” McRaith said.
Although more popular embassies like those in London, Paris, and Dublin can be difficult to get into, McRaith was able to get her first choice.
As McRaith said, “I’m really happy I did it. Even if I don’t end up working for the State Department, just the chance to see how that works and decide if that’s what I wanted to do as a career was priceless.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the Pioneer Log.