Episode 61 │ The Start of Something New (LAGOS/ROME)
Updated: Sep 22
"You can't predict or recreate these things. They're sort of like a singular moment in time when you get to say, 'Hey, I was there!' or 'Hey, I helped out with that!'" (Katrina, Episode 61)
(*Note* First: BLACK LIVES MATTER! Breonna Taylor's murder by Louisville police has been weighing on me heavily recently, so I encourage you to join me in demanding justice for her in any way you can:
Birthday for Breonna: https://msha.ke/30flirtyfilm/
Other ways to support BLM: https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co/
(1968 documentary): The Heritage of Slavery
Speech from Tamika D. Mallory that I found to be powerful: "We learned violence from you!"
Second: Young, Gifted and Abroad's 2nd anniversary is next week! Friday, June 19th! Juneteenth! I'm doing a Q&A for the anniversary episode, so send me whatever questions you can think of by June 15th! Or any time after that, sure, but especially by June 15th!)
This is the last regular episode before we officially celebrate TWO YEARS of Young, Gifted and Abroad next week! What better way to close out this second year by featuring an acquaintance of mine from way before all this started? Katrina Drayton is a former U.S. foreign service officer (FSO), on the other side of the spectrum from Jo Brooks (episode 40), who was still training for her first overseas assignment when I spoke to her. My and Katrina's respective families went to the same church for a significant length of time when we were younger. Katrina is a few years older than me and I really only interacted with her in passing, but she was gracious enough to talk with me in D.C. later on when I was an undergrad student considering a career with the U.S. State Department. In this episode she is once again sharing her insight, this time based on her experience serving in Nigeria and Italy.
Katrina grew up in the Metro Detroit area as the eldest of three daughters. She developed a passion for languages at a young age, so it made perfect sense for her to major in Romance languages and literature (mostly French but Spanish too) when she went to Harvard College to pursue her undergraduate education and run track. The summer after freshman year she also went to Shanghai for the Harvard Summit for Young Leaders in China (HSYLC). There, she and a group of other Harvard undergrad students taught seminars to engage Chinese high schoolers with various facets of American culture and liberal arts education.
For a while Katrina did not have a concrete idea of what she wanted to do in life, but the advantage of this is that it left her open to suggestions. During her sophomore year, an academic adviser suggested that she consider joining the U.S. Foreign Service, given her language skills and interest in public policy. This adviser also encouraged Katrina to look into the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship Program (or simply the Pickering Fellowship), which pays for selected fellows to earn their master's degrees and prepares them for joining the foreign service. Katrina became interested in the prospect of living and working abroad, as well as representing her country. After deciding to give it a try, she applied for the fellowship, was accepted, and then began her journey toward becoming a foreign service officer. After graduating from Harvard she moved to Washington, D.C. to pursue her master's degree in international relations and economics at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
When I asked Katrina to explain what a foreign officer does, she described an FSO as a type of diplomat who works at U.S. consulates and embassies overseas, working to advance U.S. foreign policy interests and maintain government-to-government relationships. The options for what each person does in their individual role as an FSO varies depending on their skills, career interests, placement location, and ultimately what is needed at the time. Katrina aimed for the economic officer track, and officially joined the foreign service in 2013 after earning her master's from Johns Hopkins. She also told me that newer foreign service officers do not get to choose their first two assignments, and that they find out their first one at the end of their orientation class. Katrina's first assignment turned out to be Lagos, Nigeria, and while she was excited, other people at the reveal ceremony seemed to be wary on her behalf. Apparently, or at least at that time, Nigeria was not a sought-after placement. Even after having served her tour in Nigeria, Katrina can't pinpoint a reason for that stigma other than ignorance, probably.
Katrina lived in Lagos for two years and worked at the consulate there. Outside of her day-to-day duties, she took advantage of chances to travel around other parts of Nigeria and West Africa at large. This was often quite easy and inexpensive, since being an FSO afforded her a number of colleagues and friends who would offer her a place to stay or even sometimes travel with her. Additionally, she got to witness a national election that was happening in Nigeria at the time. For her it was eye-opening to see people take voting so seriously and be passionate about exercising their right to do so, especially given the prevalence of voter apathy in the States. This was one of many experiences where, as it was happening, Katrina thought, I know this is going to be something that I remember forever.
The next two-year assignment was Rome, Italy, and Katrina moved back to D.C. for some months to prepare for this new post. While had been able to pick up on some words and expressions from local dialects in Nigeria, all of her work there was English-based. Her post in Italy, however, required that she learn Italian, and she was excited about this because Italian was one of the Romance languages that she never got a chance to study. Italy wasn't a place that she had thought of much or had her heart set on, but as with all of her experiences up to this point, she tried to approach this assignment with an open mind. And it was a bigger adjustment than she'd anticipated. Katrina usually gives herself six months to adjust to a new place, because with any move it takes some time to fit her life and the things she likes into the new situation. In Italy she had to get used to walking and taking public transportation everywhere (she didn't have a moped or a car), and she wore braids all the time and got her hair done outside of Italy because options within the country were slim to none.
Even her job was notably different. In Rome she worked at the embassy (which is larger and has more functions and more people than a consulate), and she said it's a "different vibe" being in such close proximity to the ambassador there. Eventually she got the hang of it all, and once again was able to find ways to make the most of her time. Most of her usual hobbies can be done anywhere, so she enjoyed restaurant-hopping, reading at home, and long-distance running. She visited Germany and France, but most of her travels were within Italy: Sicily for the G7 summit, Florence, Umbria, and various places off the beaten path that colleagues would invite her to.
At some point, Katrina realized that the foreign service would not be a life-long commitment for her. Career-wise she wanted to try something new, she missed being around family and friends, and overall a lot of her priorities and desires had shifted. While in Italy she started strategizing how to articulate her expertise in a way that would appeal to different industries outside of the government, and eventually she got a job doing tech policy for Facebook in Austin, Texas. Her post in Italy got cut a little short so that she could move to Austin in 2017 for her new job. She currently still works in tech policy, and has recently relocated for a position in New York City.
Generally, Katrina still speaks highly of her "very quick but very interesting career" as an FSO. Of course it was sometimes lonely and isolating being a young woman in the foreign service without a family with her like some other officers had. Plus, it was difficult not to feel like she was missing out on the lives and activities of loved ones back home; she felt like she had to work twice as hard to stay in contact with people and show that she was still interested in being part of their lives. But when I asked her about the perks of the job, among other things she emphasized the unique and unpredictable scenarios that an FSO can find themselves involved in. Once-in-a-lifetime experiences that stay with a person even after leaving the foreign service.
Looking forward (when traveling is safer and advisable again), Katrina basically wants to go everywhere she hasn't been before. More specifically, there are some places in Italy (like the Dolomites) that she didn't get to visit before she left, and South America is high on her list as well. Katrina can be found on Instagram (@kndrayton).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "The Start of Something New (LAGOS/ROME)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
Harvard Summit for Young Leaders in China (HSYLC)