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State Department Recruits In San Antonio To Fix Diplomat Diversity Problem

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AARON SCHRANK/TPR
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Arnold Chacon, Director General of the Foriegn Service, speaking to students at St. Mary's University in San Antonio.

Arnold Chacon is the first Hispanic Director General of the Foreign Service—a job that doubles as hiring manager for the entire U.S. State Department. He’s onstage before thousands of students at the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities recent annual conference in San Antonio.

“The Department is no longer the exclusive bastion of white males from the Northeast or, as they used to say, pale, male and Yale,” Chacon says.

Chacon says the U.S. diplomatic workforce is more diverse than when he began as a Foreign Service officer 35 years ago.

“I don’t want to get into the statistics, but suffice it to say that we are not where we want to be,” Chacon says.

State Department data released in June shows that 71 percent of employees are white. Just 7 percent are Hispanic, while Hispanics account for 18 percent of the U.S. population. Following an Obama directive to improve those stats, the Department is boosting recruiting efforts in cities like San Antonio to get more talent from outside of the Beltway and the Ivy League into its ranks.

“It’s a vibrant Hispanic community in the San Antonio area—an area I think really has a lot of potential, so that’s one of the primary reasons I’m here,” Chacon says.

At St. Mary’s University, the former Ambassador to Guatemala tells a roomful of students how his colleagues are tackling problems like climate change, arms control, ISIS and Ebola.

“You have the opportunity to serve your country and impact the lives of people that you never knew existed in places you never imagined,” Chacon told students at the nearly 60 percent Hispanic or Latino Catholic institution.

Senior Giovane Ordonez is an International Relations major from Fort Worth.  

“I’m one of the first few people to come to college from my family, and so it’s something very new—the idea moving away from home and being in the Foreign Service,” she says. “But It’s an idea that I’m exploring.”

Only about 1 in 50 people who take the Foreign Service exam will be hired in a given year, but Ordonez was glad to hear Chacon tell students it’s possible with some perseverance. Even the Director General failed the exam his first time around.

“It was nice to hear the human side, in that as long as you continue to try and try, the Foreign Service is obtainable with a passion,” says Ordonez. “It’s a job that I can definitely see myself doing.”

Ordonez speaks Spanish—a language that Chacon says is in high demand right now—along with Portuguese, Mandarin and Arabic. The State Department is experiencing a growing shortage of consular adjudicators—those who process visas to enter the U.S. Chacon says 1 million of the 10 million visas processed each year are from Mexico.

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Credit AARON SCHRANK/TPR
Director General Arnold Chacon and UTSA student Nishiti Maliek discuss career opportunities in the U.S. Foreign Service.

To a group of students at the University of Texas at San Antonio—which is among the top schools nationwide in the number of degrees awarded to Hispanic students—

Chacon explains that diversity isn’t about just race or ethnicity, but gender, religion, military experience—even geographic location.  

“You’re all from Texas,” says Chacon. “You understand international affairs more than most Americans because you live it every day.”  

Nishita Maliek is a UTSA grad student in criminology. She was already considering a diplomatic career, but she’s glad The State Department is reaching her school.

“Well I think there’s just not a lot of awareness about this career field,” says Maliek. “UTSA is a very working community. A lot of people already have jobs—and we’re not exposed to this side.”

Maliek speaks Hindi and Urdu and is learning Arabic from her grandparents. She was planning to work in Corrections, but now feels like diplomacy is a better fit.

Since me and a lot of other people at this school and community come from such a diverse background, we can use it as our strength—and I think this is the place where it’s needed the most.

Director General Chacon says it’s the job of diplomats to promote democracy and inclusion worldwide, and it helps for the State Department to walk the talk.

“It’s a way of showcasing what makes us a great nation and there is merit in leveraging the many talents and cultures you have to do good,” Chacon says.

College recruiting trips like this one won’t get the State Department where it needs to be tomorrow. The average Foreign Service Officer is 33 when sworn in. But Chacon says to convince the best and brightest minds nationwide to choose a highly-competitive diplomatic career over some high paying corporate job, he’s got to be on their radar early.