Ronald Hawkins is the Public Affairs Counselor at the US Embassy in Bucharest.
Please, tell us a little about your career; Did your education prepare you for working in this field? How did your diplomatic career start?
I’ve always been interested in International Affairs, International Relations, and the opportunity came up when I was in grad school, actually, in Washington, DC, that I could continue my studies and work at the Department of State and get credit towards my Master’s Degree. So I applied and got in and I was thrilled! Then after about a year and a half I was hired as a full time employee. I had to graduate first, that’s why it took that long, I got my Master’s and then started with the Department of State.
There are three or four types of employees at the State Department. There’s what’s called civil service, which are people that stay domestic, stays in the United States. There’s foreign service, those of us that travel overseas, there’s foreign service nationals, which are locally employed staff, in this case Romanians who work at the US Embassy, and then there’s what they call specialists, people that are hired because of their specialty: medical, technical, security and that kind of stuff. Those are usually the four pillars that make up the Department of State. So I came into civil service and I was quite happy about that, and didn’t want to move around, it was too crazy. Then I decided to change to the foreign service, join the foreign service, and in our career you basically move around every couple of years, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
How competitive is it to be selected by the Public Diplomacy Office? What characteristics and background are they looking for in making their selections?
It is pretty competitive and I say that because I don’t want to make it sound like I’m complimenting myself, it is very selective, but they are very open to the different kinds of people that come to the Foreign Service. So there’s no real formula, you didn’t have to study foreign relations as I did, you don’t have to. They recommend a degree, but you don’t really have to have one, you just have to be 18 years old, but they recommend that you are probably going to qualify with a liberal arts degree, something like that. And then you have to take a series of tests to get into the foreign service, and they’re very competitive. So, for example – these are old statistics because I don’t have current years – but it used to be something like: 50.000 take the first test; 5000 pass and take the second test; 500 pass and they get hired that year. These numbers are very broad and they have changed over the years, but it’s just to show you how rigorous it is.
If you are selected, do you get any choice in where you are assigned to serve? Do you get a choice in what kind of job you’ll be doing?
Yes, you do have an input. In fact, I am going through that process right now and it’s not dissimilar to looking for a new job every couple of years. You are given a list of eligible, open assignments and you look at the list and see what works for you. There are a lot of factors to take into consideration: do you have time to take the language? Do you have the prerequisite training that might be needed? If not, is there time to get it? Are you competing for the job? Do you already have experience that you are bringing to the table and they will hire you for the next job? And then you submit your list, you also submit references, your resume, all these kinds of things. And then each Embassy and the Department in Washington will talk amongst themselves and then when the day finally comes, you’ll sort of hear that you have been selected for this assignment or that assignment. So I’m going into that process right now.
Why did you choose Romania?
Well, I had been to Romania before, as a tourist, and I loved it. One of my previous assignments was Bosnia, so I was living in Sarajevo, and one long weekend I said to a buddy of mine, let’s go to Romania, always wanted to visit it, it just sounds cool. So we drove from Sarajevo to Timisoara, and that was a good 10 hours, mainly because we got held up at the Serbian-Croatian border. But anyway, got to Timisoara, delightful city, loved it, loved the people, it just was wonderful. Oddly enough, a few months later, for work, I had a conference to go to, and it was in Bucharest, so I’d get to see another part of Romania.
Came to Bucharest, spent about a week here and loved it. I just thought the city was really cool, really interesting. I loved the history here as well, because Romania is such this fascinating composition of peoples and histories, you know, from Wallachia, to the creation of Romania with the addition of Transylvania, just fascinating to me. So I’ve always had in the back of my mind, when Romania appears on my list, I’m going for it. And so, my last assignment was Sudan and then when I got the list and saw Bucharest, I lobbied hard, tried to make a case that I was the guy to hire.
As the Public Affairs Counselor at the US Embassy in Romania, you surely have a very broad understanding of Romania’s political, economic and social issues. In your opinion, what is the best lesson that Romania could learn from the US regarding the political sphere?
You know, I think what I would say applies to any sphere, not just the political sphere. The biggest thing that I think that Romania could learn from the US, and I really should put it this way, what I think the US experienced with democracy and has to offer as an example is the mentality of the individual. What I mean by that, is that Americans, and you may think that this is arrogance or just pride, Americans individually feel empowered to make a difference in the society, whether it’s the political landscape, the educational landscape, the health sector, whatever. Americans really feel that if they see something that should be changed, then they not only can make a difference, they actually have the ability to make a difference and they have the confidence to try to make a change for the better. I think this is something that Romanians could probably take a look at. We offer a lot of examples of individuals that have stood up and of course in a lot of situations, there’s not only one person, it’s a collection of people. But you have that one person that’s a catalyst, one person that’s a leader, one person that garners other’s energy to make a change and that’s something that I would love to see more present in Romanians and particularly in the Romanian youth.
The US Embassy offers support for a variety of educational programs which involve young Romanian students. I myself have taken part in one such program, the Elie Wiesel Study Tour. What is the reason behind putting so much energy into these actions and programs? What are the assumptions that the programs are built on?
Good question. In part, what I just said, sharing the American experience and empowering the individual, and in part, you know, we have a lot in common, our two countries. We are, firstly, NATO allies, we have been friends for quite a long time now, and we also come from a very diverse population. The United States is very diverse, so is Romania. We have African-Americans, we have Latinos, ethnic groups from around the world make up the United States, and we haven’t always had an easy time with diversity and tolerance, have we? Let’s be honest, we haven’t. Romania: very diverse country as well: you have Romanians, of course, you have Hungarians, Ukrainians, Serbs, you have Roma. And not only that. With the US, we have Christians, Jews, Muslims. So does Romania. You have all this, and dealing with these groups is not always easy, creating harmony. A healthy democracy is an inclusive, tolerant one. And so, we’ve learned a few things. Again, we have not got it right, we’re still learning, we are not a perfect country. But any lessons that we have learned, we’d like to share, we’d like to offer. And so, sponsoring programs that target the youth, that’s the aim. It’s to share some of our experiences and some of our lessons learned, particularly with those people who are about to take over as the leaders of this country. And when I say leader, I don’t necessarily mean political leader. There are people who are going to lead in all industries, in all areas, in all communities, whether be academic, religious, cultural or political. And a lot of this I think we could share, for example, of course, is the Elie Wiesel Study Tour. This is a perfect link between our two countries. He was Romanian born, you know the rest of the story, spent time in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, then becomes an American citizen, wins the Nobel peace prize. So what a great way to celebrate the link that exists between our two countries, by looking at his life, looking at his lessons learned and looking at his contributions to promoting diversity and tolerance and understanding.
As a student who is graduating university next year, my strong opinion is that schools and universities lack the resources we so badly need in order to complete our education. We do not have access to databases like EBSCO, for instance, and it is very difficult to research a certain topic. In your opinion, what is the main problem of Romania’s educational system?
Well, that’s a broad one. I think that there are a lot of resources that the Romanian government could probably put into the educational system. But again, a lot of the times, fancy tools aren’t always the answer either. They’re nice, they make things easier, for sure, but I also think that it’s really important for the student as well as to develop their own capacity. And that has to get into, for example, researching. Becoming really good researchers. So that whether or not you’re looking through library books or whether or not you’re using databases online or other kind of electronic resources, making full use of them, verifying facts, not just trusting that if something is out there, it’s actual legit and real, but verifying the facts and really becoming excellent researchers.
So I think that in both of our systems, there are a lot more resources that could be spent on education, but I think students as well shouldn’t feel like resources aren’t out there. Take advantage of what you do have and then you can produce excellent scholarly work with what’s out there.
Overall, is your experience as a Public Affairs Counselor in Romania a positive one?
Oh, absolutely, one hundred percent yes. What’s the Romanian expression, “sută la sută”? This has been an incredible place to work, we have an incredible team here at the Embassy that is dedicated to promoting the deep relationship that already exists between the United States and Romania and keeping that going on all fronts. We’ve only talked here about the programs particularly focused on youth, but we do so many more programs. We, in Public Affairs, have support for all these programs. So there’s a great deal that happens between our two countries and that’s an excellent expression of the deep friendship and partnership that we have. So, for me to come in with something that is already fantastic and serve here for a few years and be a part of it is a very humbling experience. It’s just been great. I still have until June or so next year and I’m not counting the time, I’m trying to hold it back a little bit, because this has been such a great experience.