Young Black Men Excel: In the Foreign Service of the U.S. State Department
On Labor Day weekend Black Enterprise will be holding its first ever Black Men XCEL Summit, a “combination of empowerment, inspiration, networking, and entertainment” that celebrates the leadership and excellence of black men.
Our first Q&A is with Larry Harris, who last week was sworn into the Foreign Service of the U.S. Department of State, which executes the foreign policy of the United States. Harris will serve in a career appointment as a diplomat.
Harris is a graduate of the University of Illinois and American University, where he earned a Master of Arts in International Relations.
I recently spoke with him to find out more about this new chapter in his life.
How did you learn about the Foreign Service?
Larry Harris: When I was a sophomore in college I was giving a speech at the United Nations on culture diplomacy. There were several foreign service officers there—that was the first time I heard about it.
Wait a minute! You’re a college sophomore giving a speech at the U.N.? How did that happen?
LH: (Laughs) My professor had asked me to introduce Guy Djoken, chairman of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO Clubs, Centers & Associations, who had come to my school to inaugurate our UNESCO chapter. Afterward he asked me to come to New York and speak at the World Federation of UNESCO Clubs, Centers & Associations conference. I was completely taken aback by the invitation.
Tell me a little bit about your background.
LH: My dad is a retired Chicago city bus driver and my mother worked in medical records. I attended Chicago public schools that were severely lacking in resources and had outdated books. But I had teachers who took an interest in my education and served as mentors. My parents also had a huge impact on my life. They always said there were no barriers to achieving what I wanted and were 100% supportive of my endeavors.
Tell me about your undergraduate experience.
LH: Undergrad was fantastic—I recommend the University of Illinois highly. I formed strong bonds with my professors and remain in contact with them today. They genuinely had a strong interest in seeing their students succeed. We had professors of all ethnicities but most of my professors were white.
How does one become part of the Foreign Service?
LH: There is a testing process—a written test on American history, the U.S. constitution—a range of subjects that covers every facet of U.S. life and culture and the world as well. If you pass the written test you’re invited to the oral examination. If you pass the oral, you go through a security clearance process and a health clearance process.
I actually came in through the [Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Program]. [The Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship Program] and Rangel fellowships facilitate the entry of underrepresented groups into the Foreign Service. They ensure that the Foreign Service reflects the rich diversity of our country, so every race, religion, and socioeconomic status must be represented. The Foreign Service must look like America.
Do Fellows have to take the written and oral exams?
LH: Fellows actually get vetted twice—we go through a selection process to receive the fellowship, and then also through the exam process. The Rangel Fellowship selects 30 students from across the country every year. It provides funds to finance your graduate education, your internship on Capitol Hill, and your internship at an industry abroad. Once you’ve satisfied these requirements you enter the Foreign Service.
Do you need to know a foreign language?
LH: The Foreign Service will teach you. But I learned Kiswahili at the University of Illinois. That was the language I tested out of at the American University School of International Service.
What are your goals as a diplomat?
LH: While serving my country I hope to learn something new every day from my colleagues, from the culture, from my position. I want to build mutual understanding between my country and the country in which I’ll be serving. I want to build a more prosperous world and new bridges between nations.
Your parents must be proud of you.
LH: They’re super proud, though my mother is a little concerned. U.S. diplomats can serve in dangerous places.
You survived growing up in Chicago.
LH: (Laughs) That’s true.
Register now for the Black Men XCEL Summit and join us for a great celebration of black men!