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Thinking About a Career as a Diplomat? Language Skills Enhance Your Prospects

By Judy Reinke, Career Minister, U.S. & Foreign Commercial Service, U.S. Department of Commerce | Published: June 26, 2018

These days, I’m a senior diplomat involved in international trade at the U.S. Department of Commerce.  But as a tiny tot sitting in the back row of a kindergarten in Frankfurt, Germany, more than 50 years ago, I had no idea how important language learning would be in my life and career. While my memory of the first days in that kindergarten have long since faded, I know I felt alone and lost as the only American among strangers speaking another language. Thanks to the girl who held my hand and would become my best friend, I made it through those first days, and weeks, until I was playing and singing in German like the rest of them. My early knowledge of German had already begun to shape my life!

Judy and her best friend in kindergarten
The author (left) and her best friend
in German kindergarten class. Judy
was the daughter of an Army Officer
assigned to Germany when she was 
only three years old.

Back in the USA, my parents pushed me to keep my German skills active. My father would give me a quarter every time I sat still long enough to listen to a full side of an LP record from our five-record German Language set (yes, long before internet streaming). As a fidgety little girl, I don’t recall making more than a dollar at a time, but I stuck with it–also taking summer language classes at the local university and spending a summer in Germany at the end of my senior year in high school. 

I loved German, but wanted to learn more languages, so I switched to French in college. Two years later, I had a choice to make between a junior year abroad in Hamburg, Germany (to master German) or Geneva, Switzerland (to solidify my French). I chose Geneva, but soon thought I’d made a terrible mistake (academically, that is—outside of school, I was having a blast)! Happily, the “immersiveness” of the living environment worked its magic, and by the end of the year I could follow lectures in French on tough topics like international affairs and development studies.

My path to an international career was clearly paved by these language experiences. But what does one do with language skills and the urge to be a global citizen? Some answers can be found in the Worldview Blog posts from March on language learning and careers. Dr. Allan Goodman of the Institute of International Education reinforced the value of study abroad as a critical stepping stone to preparing for a career in the global economy. I would go a step further and say any immersive language experience—whether studying abroad, learning in a camp environment or even being plunked into a German kindergarten—grows skills that can’t typically be gained from a classroom. Flexibility, problem-solving, cultural adaptability, and appreciation of diversity are skills any employer will value.   

In my case, I was drawn to the world of international trade at the U.S. Department of Commerce. Working on trade regulations and enforcement issues, my awareness and sensitivity to cultural differences often gave me useful insights into why our trading partners approached the rules of trade differently. And when an opportunity emerged to apply for a short-term overseas assignment, my German and French skills paid off—I was selected for a chance to serve at the U.S. Embassy in Switzerland to work on trade issues. From there, I applied for a position at the Commerce Department’s U.S. & Foreign Commercial Service, a specialized part of the Foreign Service that spun off from the State Department in 1980 to focus on trade issues. My language skills and international experience were certainly part of the reason I was accepted, and my career since then has taken me not only to Germany, but also to Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and India. The Commercial Service, with a corps of about 250 Commercial Officers serving in over 75 countries, not only values language skills, but includes language mastery as one of the core competencies.

Judy with then-Secretary of CommerceJohn Bryson and team members during visit to India
The author (third from the left) with then-Secretary of Commerce John Bryson (third from the right) and 
members of her team during a 2012 visit to India by a U.S. trade delegation. 

A career in diplomacy is an obvious option for lovers of languages. The real business of diplomacy—in my case the practice of “commercial diplomacy”—is using one’s cultural awareness and language aptitude to communicate authentically to host country nationals on topics that may be sensitive or problematic in order to find areas of agreement and opportunity. It turns out that I have been effective at doing just that, thanks largely to the skills I gained from learning languages through immersion. 

There are dozens of good reasons to learn a language, but none is more important than being able to use it to dispel misunderstanding and build friendships all over the world. I’ve been fortunate to find a global career where I can do this, and as amazing as it seems in hindsight, it all began in that German kindergarten over 50 years ago. 

About the Author

Judy Rising Reinke is a senior Foreign Service Officer at the U.S. Department of Commerce who has spent over thirty years working on international trade issues.  As a Commercial Officer, Judy has helped U.S. firms explore market opportunities and address unfair trade barriers while working at U.S. Embassies in Germany, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and India.  Most recently, Judy served at the Deputy Director General of the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service (US&FCS) of the Department of Commerce, leading an organization of nearly 1600 trade and investment professionals based in over 75 countries and in 100 cities across the United States.  A graduate of Smith College with a Master’s Degree from Princeton University, Judy not only speaks German and French, but has taken courses in Arabic, Latin, Indonesian and Thai—and continues to look for new language learning opportunities.  More information about the US&FCS can be found here.

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