Mehmil Zia is the American Citizen Services Officer for East Asia Pacific at the Bureau of Consular Affairs, U.S. Department of State. She joined the Civil Service in 2019 and prior to that worked in various roles in diplomatic training, public diplomacy, and consular affairs starting in 2014. Mehmil has a Master’s degree in Security Policy Studies from the George Washington University and a Bachelor’s degree from the American University School of International Service.
When did you realize you wanted an international career?
I always had an inclination towards a career in public service but an international relations elective course in my junior year of high school drove me to a career in foreign policy. Our class took a trip to the Embassy of Jordan in Washington, D.C. and learning about the work of diplomats attracted me to this career choice.
What is your current position? What did the path look like to get there?
I am an American Citizen Services Officer at the U.S. Department of State. My career at the Department started in college when I was an intern at the Foreign Service Institute in my junior year. Since then, I have worked at the Department in different capacities and offices, including as a virtual intern, contractor, and Pathways intern. I joined the civil service near the end of my Master’s program at the Elliott School.
What part of your experience at the Elliott School best prepared you for post-grad career?
One thing that was important to me for my graduate career was to be taught by and learn alongside foreign policy practitioners, so I could learn and apply real world experiences and examples. Learning from and being mentored by professors who were working in the jobs I was interested in was extremely valuable. I also appreciated the support of the Graduate Career Development Office, as they helped me prepare for networking events and interviews, and their advice was invaluable.
What advice do you have for prospective students who are considering a graduate degree in international relations?
One of the most valuable pieces of advice that I got was to join the work force before pursuing a graduate degree. This allowed me to see what gaps I had in my formal education, what my career outlook was, and select a program that was best aligned with my interest and needs.
What did you value most about living and studying in D.C.?
Working and studying full time can take up your entire day and week, not leaving much time for networking or attending events if you live away from D.C. It was convenient for me to be in the heart of D.C. and easily go from class to work to a speaker or networking event!
Describe a city/place/landmark you enjoyed visiting. Why is it significant to you?
I enjoyed my trip to Mexico City for the capstone project! I learned a lot of about Mexico, its culture, and the topic we did our paper on. It is a place that I may not have had on the top of my “to visit” list, but I was grateful for the opportunity to go because it is a vibrant city with a lot of history. That trip will always be special to me as it was the culmination of my grad school career.
Adwoa Ofori-Gyau is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in International Affairs with a concentration in Global Gender Policy and a regional focus on Africa. She received a Bachelor of Science in International Business with a minor in Spanish from Catawba College in 2021. Particularly she is interested in gender advocacy, gender empowerment and policymaking surrounding minority groups in Africa. She has volunteered at Covered Girls Inc in Charlotte, NC and has great experience with nonprofit organizations and social impact campaigns during her time at Youngsters Development Hub and Reach Marketing both in Ghana. She is currently interning with Washington English Center in Washington, DC. Adwoa enjoys listening to podcasts, reading African literature, traveling, and meeting people from different cultures.
When did you realize you wanted an international career? What led you to choose the Elliott School?
As a young girl growing up in Ghana, I noticed and experienced different disparities in the system. That is really what sparked my interest in having a career where I can represent Ghana and Africa internationally in hopes of affecting change. However, I was not sure how I was going to get there, the specific program of study that I would enjoy and would also set me up for a successful international career. After my undergraduate studies in International Business and pursuing a minor in Spanish, I was certain I wanted to pursue a master’s degree and delve deeper into the international space. I looked up schools that had strong international programs and the Elliott School emerged at the top of my list. Thankfully I gained admission and here I am! Talk about a dream come true!
Where do you currently intern or volunteer, and how does it fit in with your career goals?
I am currently interning with Washington English Center in Washington, DC. I volunteer with Excelling Abroad, an online community that specializes in helping international students transition smoothly from their home countries to the United States. I also volunteer virtually with the Youngsters Development Hub in Ghana. This nonprofit focuses on providing educational resources, mentorship, and guidance to students in public schools across the country. My ultimate career goal is to work with the United Nations. However, 5 years from now, I would like to have risen through the ranks at Ghana’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration or have secured a job as an advocacy and policy manager in a select African country.
What has been your most rewarding academic experience at the Elliott School and why?
This is a bit of a tough question. Honestly, all my academic experiences so far at the Elliott School have been very fulfilling and extremely helpful. I have had very important guest speakers in international careers, ranging from peace building, gender activists, and many more. If I had to pick one most rewarding academic experience, it will be an opportunity I got through my International Relations in Africa class. I was invited to join a virtual discussion and listening session with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of African Affairs, in preparation of President Biden’s U.S. Africa Leaders Summit. As a Ghanaian pursuing education in the U.S., I felt very honored and was excited to have an input in a topic that directly affects my home continent.
Describe the pros and cons of being a full-time or part-time student at the Elliott School.
As a full-time student, I find that I have more time dedicated to my classes, readings, course papers, and research work. I am also able to take advantage of networking opportunities, get involved on campus, and connect with professors and course mates outside of class. However, being a full-time student takes away from social time. This is where being intentional with all aspects of your life comes in. Knowing that all facets of your life need and deserve attention and that a good balance will translate into a great wellbeing is extremely helpful. I would assume that as a part-time student, there is a break from constant school and an escape at work to focus on other tasks which could be a great thing!
What advice do you have for incoming students who are starting to think about internship and work opportunities?
I will advise them to get involved on campus and most importantly, connect with their professors, take advantage of office hours, and get to know them beyond the classroom and classes. This will make you memorable and they can easily recommend you for various opportunities- ranging from work, on campus leadership positions, internships and many more. Also, check out the Graduate Student Services weekly newsletters – there are a lot of hidden gems in there!
If you could donate unlimited funds to any cause, what would it be and why?
Definitely to the healthcare sector in Africa! Quality and affordable healthcare is something that the continent generally lacks although there very talented health professionals across the continent. I have read and witnessed one too many people who went to the hospital for basic healthcare needs and did not make it back home alive.
Isaiah Nielsen lived for thirteen years in Puebla, Mexico. His experiences bred in him a love for political science, international affairs, language, and security issues. He returned to his home state, Minnesota, in 2018 for his B.A. in Political Science and International Studies from the University of Minnesota Morris where he graduated with high distinction and honors in May 2022. He spent much of his academic time researching, working as a teaching assistant, and taking courses in international security and East Asian and Latin American politics. In the summer of 2021, he received the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) to attend intensive Korean language courses in South Korea. Currently, he is an incoming M.A. candidate in the Security Policy Studies program at the Elliott School. Isaiah hopes to bring his established and newly acquired skills from the Elliott School to federal government service.
What has been your most rewarding academic experience so far?
My academic experience at the University of Minnesota Morris was fantastic. I was blessed with the opportunity to work closely with professors at my small campus in Morris and my undergraduate research and teaching assistantships gave me a lot of confidence in my skills. That being said, the most rewarding experience was the State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship program during the summer of 2021. I was awarded the opportunity to travel to Gwangju, South Korea to take intensive Korean language courses at Chonnam National University. Through classes and activities, I was able to immerse myself in a language and culture that, not only did I find supremely fascinating, but holds a place close to my heart.
What are you looking forward to about living in the DC/Maryland/Virginia (DMV) area?
There is much to look forward to in my case! I will be transitioning from a small-town campus in rural Minnesota to the wide-ranging DMV area. I am very excited to see the history and culture in the buildings, monuments, restaurants, and museums in the downtown DC area. I look forward to cheering on my Minnesota sports teams in different stadiums and arenas. Also, in a backwards way, I look forward to leaving the bustle of the city to hike and reminisce in the more rural areas of the DMV and the surrounding area.
Is your grad program related to your undergrad degree? If so, how?
My graduate program is closely related to my undergraduate degree, but the emphasis is a bit different. I completed my B.A. in Political Science and International Studies with a focus on international security and East Asia. Here at the Elliott School, I am pursuing an M.A. in Security Policy Studies with a specialization in U.S. National Security or Transnational Security. They are definitely related, but I was never satisfied with the depth on the security issues of my classes. I plan to use my electives to continue my study in East Asia and pivot towards Latin America, expand my professional skills, and take a deep dive on academic and practical knowledge in a more diverse pool of international security issues.
Why did you choose to commit to the Elliott School for your graduate program?
It was a perfect storm of reasons. Besides the blessings of fellowships, the Elliott School is perfectly positioned programmatically and geographically. Programs at other institutions, from my perception, tended to overemphasize the professional or academics. On the other hand, the programs at the Elliott School are a great in-between for fostering my academic interests as well as supporting my goals of entering the professional and federal government world. More specifically, the Security Policy Studies program satisfies my curiosity for international and national security issues which tended to only get a cursory glance in many of my previous undergraduate Political Science courses. Geographically, DC is unrivaled when you are searching for networking opportunities, jobs, and internships in both the government and private sector. Further, the Elliott School’s strong career and academic service record, emphasis on professional skills courses, and a wide array of fascinating, in-depth courses to choose from were all also big draws for me.
What is your favorite city that you have visited and why?
This is quite the difficult question because every home that I have had has its many pros and cons! When I lived in Puebla, Mexico, I resided in both the urban neighborhood of Momoxpan and in the agrarian town of Santa Maria Zacatepec. During my time there, I was able to visit diverse climates and environments in Veracruz, Morelos, Mexico City, Quintana Roo, Tlaxcala, Oaxaca, and Nuevo León. When I lived in Minnesota, I attended university in the prairie town of Morris, but my home address was Roseville, a first-ring suburb in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. When I traveled to South Korea, I got to experience both Seoul, the bustling capital city, and Gwangju, the hub of a more agricultural Jeolla province. If I choose a favorite based on nostalgia, I would choose my love of visiting and hiking the great outdoors of northern Minnesota with my friends or family. If I choose based on my favorite in the more traditional sense, I would choose Gwangju in South Korea. My experiences in Mexico and the U.S. are much more normalized since they are places I lived, but Gwangju gave me memories I will cherish forever.
At GW, Matej focused on the topic of space policy and diplomacy at the Space Policy Institute. After several internships in both public (EUMETSAT) and private (ICE Cubes Service) space sectors, he currently works as a consultant for the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs and supports the Office’s activities in the field of capacity building in space law. Matej has a passion for history, winter sports, and is a passionate traveler – his ultimate goal in life is to visit every country in the world.
What path led you to apply to graduate school? Why did you choose the Elliott School?
From a young age, I was interested in global politics and diplomacy, which I always considered a form of art. The decision to focus on international affairs thus came naturally and I got both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in this field.
During my previous graduate studies at St. Petersburg State University, I decided to focus my thesis on so-called space diplomacy and its role in the application of state power. This allowed me to see the important role space activities play not only in the advancement of our knowledge but also in achieving the foreign policy goals of individual states. I immediately found a great interest in this fascinating and still rather emerging topic.
I could’ve tried to look for space-related jobs with my previous education but I was eager to broaden my horizons and be prepared for my professional life in the best way possible. Since my goal was to attend a reputable university with strong research activity, I quickly came across the Space Policy Institute and the M.A. program in International Science and Technology Policy. What made the decision to apply even easier was the broader focus of the M.A. program. I really appreciate that it gives students the ability to become experts not only in their specific areas but trains them to become competent in understanding a wide range of S&T policy issues. Finally, I can’t overemphasize enough how great it is to learn about policymaking in Washington, D.C., where all the interesting stuff happens.
Where do you currently work and how does it fit in with your career goals?
Since my first semester at the Elliott School, my goal was to effectively combine theoretical knowledge with invaluable practical experience in order to become best prepared for my professional life. Over the five semesters at GW, I had the opportunity to intern in both public and private space sectors and get familiar with various aspects of space policy, law, and strategy. The last internship of my graduate studies was at the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), which is a dedicated UN Office focusing on enhancing international cooperation in space matters and international space law.
Like many international affairs students, I have always wondered how it is to work for such a crucial organization as the UN, where the whole world meets and discusses critical issues. And I must say, being given the opportunity to utilize your skills and knowledge for the benefit of the whole of mankind is a great feeling. I’m proud to say I was offered a consultancy position at UNOOSA right after graduating from GW. Currently, I work on a capacity-building project in space law, focusing namely on helping emerging space nations to develop and amend their domestic legislative frameworks concerning space activities. Because I come from Slovakia (also an emerging space nation), I find this to be a unique opportunity to gather skills and expertise to eventually help my home country in the future.
What tools and strategies proved most helpful in making the most of your time at the Elliott School?
In my opinion, the key is to know what you want to achieve personally and professionally in both the short-term and long-term. If you know what your goals are, it is much easier to be able to prioritize things, plan your activities and maximize your time at Elliott School. Particularly prioritization is important – grad school offers so many opportunities that it is easy to get lost in your own calendar.
It is very important to create good relationships with your professors – they are not only your teachers but can become your mentors or even friends. Having a simple conversation after the class or exchanging emails about some particular topic could turn very useful and rewarding.
I’d also say that is great to get to know individual research institutes at the Elliott School – the research they do is extensive and very interesting. These institutes regularly organize various events – this is a great opportunity for students to not only broaden their horizons and possibly challenge existing concepts but also to connect with fellow students at Elliott School and professionals/academics from various fields.
One important thing I’d like to mention is that choosing electives should be taken seriously if students want to maximize their time at Elliott – many electives can expand your knowledge within your specialization. Yet, you also have the opportunity to take classes that are slightly further from your field but could turn out to be very beneficial for your future.
What advice do you have for students for staying motivated at work or in class?
Most of my studies took place during the COVID-19 pandemic and I spent two semesters studying from home (in a +6 time zone). Staying motivated was certainly a challenge!
I would once again say that the key is to know your goals and dreams and dedicate your efforts towards their realization. It will not always be easy but focusing on the bigger picture makes it easier to overcome the feelings when you find yourself unmotivated or feeling down. Of course, there will be moments when you won’t feel like thinking about school or work at all. This is natural and happens to everyone.
I’m sure I don’t have to overemphasize this – it is very important to spend enough time with friends and family. Also, one should travel – it is great for mental health to change your surroundings from time to time (there are so many amazing places for day trips around Washington!) I, personally, was trying to travel home to Slovakia every time I had the opportunity. And after spending just a few days at home surrounded by lifelong friends and family, I was returning to classes with much more energy and motivation.
Also, particularly during the pandemic, what helped to keep focused on both studies and work was the Lerner Health & Wellness Center. I was really happy to add some new activity into my ypical daily routine and I actually started to enjoy exercise for the first time in my life!
What was your most memorable experience while studying at the Elliott School?
I had so many great and memorable experiences throughout my time at the Elliott School – from learning something totally unexpected in a class, to meeting successful and inspiring people on weekly basis. If I had to choose one event, however, I would pick the recent commencement. Sitting on the National Mall with other fellow students and family who share your happiness in a job well done was magical. Considering also the inspirational keynote speech of Elana Meyers Taylor, it was a truly memorable experience indeed.
It was the moment I felt rewarded for all those sleepless nights when I couldn’t go out with my friends because I had to work on a paper or do my readings. The commencement made eager to utilize everything I learned at the Elliott School throughout my studies – what a great motivation boost before embarking on a career journey. It was the perfect ending to a great and fulfilling journey I had at the Elliott School.
What is one book you think everyone should read and why?
This might sound like a cliché, but the book which had a tremendous impact on me was Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. I was 14 years old when I read the book for the very first time and it resonated with me for a very long time. My parents and grandparents were born in a totalitarian system so to a certain extent, the book helped young me to get an idea how different ordinary life must’ve been for them. Of course, the regime in Czechoslovakia was far less strict than the one in dystopian Oceania, but the attack on the individuality of people was something communism did very effectively.
Why do I think everyone should read the book? Put simply, the story allows everyone to see and feel for themselves what totalitarian regimes can do with the human psyche and human nature – and how difficult it would be to resist. Although Orwell based his two novels on his experience with fascism and Stalinism, his critique is portrayed timelessly and universally. I think that in an age of an increasing number of authoritarian regimes and disinformation around us, the book is ever more actual than ever. It is a terrifying memento for humanity about the path authoritarian regimes can lead us to.