By Alicia Carter
When Dan Sheerin, 61, began interning at the Department of State in 1980, employees’ use of office automation mainly consisted of dictating machines and electric typewriters. The newly arriving computers were clunky, plastic boxes to which only a few employees had access. Sheerin was a determined summer intern from Pennsylvania State University, where he studied business and foreign affairs. His internship led to a job in the Department’s Information Technology team after graduation. Today, he serves as the division chief of the Diplomatic Innovation Division in the Office of eDiplomacy in the Bureau of Information Resource Management.
Sheerin moved through various positions within executive management but clearly remembers the impact of seasoned diplomats and influential leaders, like former-Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, who took the time to mentor and speak with early career professionals. Rice also began her career as an intern in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in 1977, not long before Sheerin.
“These were the times long before the Virtual Student Federal Service (VSFS), which has completely changed the nature and impact of internships, along with foreign policy, due to the advancement of technology that I have seen over my career,” said Sheerin on internship programs at the Department today.
In early September 2020, Sheerin joined his bureau team for their orientation session to welcome 16 virtual interns to eDiplomacy.
To inspire the same passion he remembers at the beginning of his career, he shared former-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s confirmation hearing address on the importance of information sharing and technology.
“The success of U.S. diplomacy in this new century will depend in no small measure whether we exploit the promise of the information revolution,” said Powell.
Powell’s statement highlights that while there are risks in technology, the bigger risk is not figuring out how to do better—to be more equitable, innovative, transparent, and community-oriented. This sentiment affirms the effectiveness and strength of programs like VSFS, which had a record-breaking number of 2,110 interns in 2020 and has been recognized internationally as a premier virtual internship program.
Sheerin also reminded the VSFS internship mentors, “For the State employees who are here with the interns they will be mentoring, please make sure you make this a very valuable experience.”
Among the interns listening was Amber Weeks, a VSFS intern in the Office of eDiplomacy’s IRM Design Lab, a student at the University of Arts in Philadelphia, and a full-time graphic designer for the State of Delaware. In one day, she juggles countless responsibilities but successfully manages her work with the flexible nature of the VSFS program—working from where and when one can.
Weeks already completed two original motion graphic videos and edited three videos for the IRM Design Lab’s “Deep Dive I.T.” webinar series. She is also currently working on branding guidelines for the Design Lab as it expands its outreach and it moves forward to opening the doors of its collaborative space in 2021, bringing a human-centered approach to the development of the Department of State’s information technology products and services.
“I love working for the local and federal government because they are actually very community-oriented. I am able to create work that will help others and better a system,” said Weeks.
Other VSFS interns returned to their video calls for a second year, like Danielle Maxwell, who works with Vivian Chen, director of the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Program in the National Forest Service.
Maxwell is a junior at Northern Arizona University studying criminal justice and parks and recreation management, and as a returning VSFS intern, she leads the team. Outside of school and her internships, she enjoys hiking and camping with her family.
The strong mentorship bond between Chen and Maxwell, she says, is the reason she chose to return, along with the importance of EMS’s work. Chen’s 10-person virtual intern team analyzes data from regional firefighting and law enforcement incident reports to identify public safety issues and to influence policy.
“Vivian gives constructive criticism and lets us learn through trial and error,” said Maxwell. “Then, with the larger Forest Service team, we participate in enrichment programs, and I have learned so much from those.”
EMS is under the Forest Service leadership and has an 80-person VSFS team led by Gary Barrett, the acting assistant director for recreation, heritage, and volunteer services.
Video: The Virtual Student Federal Service (VSFS) intern team for the Office of Cultural Programs in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs hosted a virtual ‘Zoomsgiving’ to share their favorite Thanksgiving memories and wish the entire Department of State community a happy holiday, Nov. 11, 2020.
Through biweekly all-hands meetings, resume workshops, speaker series, and active mentorship, Barrett’s goal is to add enrichment and engagement to the program this year.
“I care about what type of employees they will be five years from now,” said Barrett. “I’m not giving out busywork. I want to help our interns build their networks, skill sets, and tackle problems in a new way.”
Another team with a record of VSFS success and mentorship is National Counterintelligence, which is under the guidance of Executive Director Patricia Larsen. In June, Larsen applied to VSFS with three projects seeking six interns, but after an “overwhelming response of talented applicants,” she chose to accept 25. Her team knows what VSFS success looks like, but this year, much like the Forest Service, they created a cohort.
At the team kick-off, many interns stepped up to be team leads and suggested skills and projects they could do through the year.
“They have 24 other human beings who have a general interest in what they do. The cohort itself is an incredible resource,” said Larsen.
National Counterintelligence is responsible for the security of the nation—protecting the supply chain and enhancing security efforts across the country, for example. The VSFS team is engaged in a historical project compiling revolutionary war espionage information and building online communications.
Being forced to work entirely remotely, counterintelligence staff had to think differently about their own work and recognize that every member is a part of the team, especially virtually. The outcomes of the VSFS projects, Larsen believes, have shown that.
“The next generation…they’re engaged, interested, and want to listen and learn. You actually have a lot to pass on to the next generation even if you don’t think you do,” said Larsen.
A small but highly effective team, the Department’s Bureau of Legislative Affairs is led by Acting Director for Senate Affairs Hunter Treseder and Senior Congressional Advisor Jack Anderson.
The bureau, the smallest in the Department, focuses on the intersection of foreign affairs and public policy in Congress. Treseder describes it as “behind the scenes” work that makes the Department come alive and that the interns “help tell our story to the Hill.”
Anderson and Treseder approach the intern onboarding process the same way that they would onboard full-time employees. After a few weeks of job shadowing, interns participate in phone briefings with Congress, lead interagency speaker series, and analyze congressional and foreign policy statements.
For Treseder, the most exciting part of leading VSFS interns is the chance to build the next generation of Department employees.
“When I graduated, I worked in public relations and was eager, but the company had no idea what to do with me,” said Treseder. “It was a terrible experience. Now, I want to make sure that whatever we are doing is helping these young people prepare for their future and have a better postgraduate experience than I did. I get a lot of personal satisfaction out of not letting this happen again.”
The bonds created by VSFS teams can last a lifetime and bring the Department community closer together this virtual year. Although it has been 40 years since Dan Sheerin began his work at the Department as an intern, he recognizes that mentorship cuts both ways.
“The young professionals have perspectives and skills and experiences that we don’t. They grew up in the digital space, and throughout my career, I’ve migrated to that area,” said Sheerin, referencing writing long-hand and typing papers in school.
While Sheerin can share career experiences and lessons learned, he also receives inspiration, perspective, and exposure to skillsets through the interns that he believes are invaluable to the Department.
“It is our mission and most inspiring act to instill in our interns the pride that we feel serving the government and working for our fellow citizens,” Sheerin said.
Virtual interns are essential to keeping up with emerging technologies and, perhaps, even more importantly, are helping to create a more inclusive and diverse workforce. For more information on the VSFS, visit their website here or follow them on Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, and Instagram.
Alicia Carter is a Virtual Student Federal Service intern with the Information Resource Management Design Lab team in the Office of eDiplomacy.