Student Spotlight: Zoë Treuer

Joining the Foreign Service is a career opportunity of a lifetime. It involves promoting peace, supporting prosperity, and protecting US citizens while advancing the interests of the US abroad. The work that Foreign Service Officers do impacts the world—while also providing an opportunity to explore and experience different cultures and customs around the world.

International Relations Online (IR Online) student Zoë Treuer recently began the Department of State’s Foreign Service Officer orientation class, at the end of which she will begin area studies and language training for her first foreign posting in Bamako, Mali. In a recent interview, Zoë explains why she chose to enroll in IR Online, how it helped her feel confident in applying to the Foreign Service, and how she believes her international relations studies will help her in her new career.

You were recently accepted into the Department of State’s Foreign Service Officer program, how does it feel? Where are you being deployed?

It feels incredibly surreal! The application process consists of a test, which, if passed, kicks off into personal skills essays. If you pass this stage, you’re invited to a day of oral assessments; once that’s passed you’ve still got stacks of paperwork and medical and security clearances to go through. I finished six weeks of orientation, and I found out that after language training, area studies and management classes, I’ll be heading to Bamako, Mali in December 2015 to be the General Services Officer there.

What Foreign Service track did you choose and why? How does IR Online help you advance in your career?

I chose the management track because I have a variety of skills and professional experiences, which seemed best suited for this track. The other options were political, public diplomacy, consular, and economic. I knew right away that political and economic were out for me, but it was harder to choose between the remaining three. In the end, I chose a track based on what sounded like the most fun to me. The IR Online program has helped me gain a wider perspective on global affairs, as well as an understanding of the vocabulary and theories employed in the field. I chose the management track because of my experience, not my education. However, my IR Online classes gave me the confidence to actually apply for this type of work!

How does your career move impact your pursuing a master’s degree? What were your motivations for applying to become an FSO?

I have taken three semesters of class, part time, through the IR Online program, putting me about halfway through the degree program. Since I knew I would be in orientation and possibly intensive language training, I decided to take this semester off from AU. I hope to pick it back up in the summer or fall semester. My motivations for applying to become an FSO come from two distinct desires: to really be passionate about my job and to travel or live abroad. I thought the Foreign Service could fulfill these desires perfectly!

Why did you decide to pursue a degree with International Relations Online? What was it specifically about the online format that drew you to it?

Originally, I began the IR Online program to really test myself: Was my growing interest in world affairs, previously non-existent, just a phase? Or was it real? The biggest surprise of my life was enjoying the huge challenge of taking challenging and high-level (to me, anyway!) IR classes. I have never enjoyed academics or the challenges presented in classes as much as I have through AU’s online program. The format fit well because I was working full time as a federal employee with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). I did not want to have to drive from work to school to home in DC rush hour traffic, so the online format allowed me to just go home after work and then join my class in the evenings—online. On the other hand, the rigorousness of the classes, the firm timelines and high expectations, made it challenging, structured, and fulfilling.

What hesitations, if any, did you have about pursuing a degree online? Have those hesitations been resolved since you’ve been in the program?

I was worried that the academics would not be challenging or, ultimately, interesting to me. I have previously earned an M.A. online and while it was accredited, it was not a challenge and did not really hold my interest for long. That’s not the case with IR Online at AU! Doing the virtual classrooms with everyone on camera, and being able to see and talk to my professors during and after classes all help to enforce the idea that this degree program is no different than if you were on campus. It is hard work and the staff will help you to learn, and your fellow classmates provide excellent experiences, opinions, and conversations.

How has the online format helped you balance work, school, family, etc. while pursuing your degree?

Balancing a full-time challenging job with a part-time challenging master’s program while still maintaining a social life can be hard sometimes. I found myself doing reading assignments during my lunch hour at work, and designating specific weekday evenings and a weekend day to schoolwork. The online format means that you can start any time of the day that you want and work in the comfort of your home or, if you get distracted like me, go to a local cafe or library to work. It’s incredibly freeing to have access to homework, lectures, and research materials anywhere there’s Wi-Fi.

In what ways have the connections you’ve made with your fellow classmates enhanced your experience?

The people in class are real people, and you see them every week! They’re not just names on an online message board. You hear them, watch them, argue with them, and chat with them during class to see if they can help you with difficult concepts. There’s a definite military community in the classes, which is nice (I was in the Air Force before working at NOAA). We often do group work, both during class and outside of it, and it can be a challenge with time zone differences, particularly with folks doing their degree from halfway around the world. That just makes it more fun, in my opinion, because it’s incredible to think that someone is doing the same thing as me in another country, in another kind of life.

How do the live class sessions contribute to the connections you build with faculty?

I’ve found the faculty very willing to have “office hours” between classes, where it’s just as if you were passing by their office on campus and stopped to discuss a difficult concept or get advice on a paper. There has also been a tutor or two who make themselves available to go over concepts, all on the live sessions. At the regular class times, you get to see the instructor as they think and carry out their lesson plan, which makes them seem more real and approachable than if they were just a name on the screen (like in a chat window or message board). You can ask them questions during their lecture or make comments from your own experiences, and most of the instructors are very welcoming.

Did you participate in the fall 2014 immersion? If so, what were the main lessons you learned from attending? How were you able to build upon the personal connections you’ve made in the program at the immersion?

I did attend the fall 2014 immersion and it was really surprising how incredibly fun it was to meet people in person! I enjoyed our negotiation seminar and learned some good information from the exercises we did, but the real treat was seeing my fellow students in person. With some, it felt like we’d met in person ages ago; with others, I was surprised at how different they seemed from when they were on camera! It was also really nice to meet professors.

What skills, acquired in the program, have helped you throughout the application and admission process for the Foreign Service? How do you anticipate using those skills in your career?

For me, the IR Online program was my first foray into International Relations or world history, in an academic sense. It was really the reading and the conversations about general theories and ideologies—realist vs. constructivist views, reasons behind the formation of the United Nations, theories and application of quantitative analysis—that helped me feel confident in applying for the Foreign Service. As I move forward in my new career, my hope is to continue building an understanding of complex events, histories, and geo-political relationships, so that I can contextualize what I see at each post. Also, several IR Online professors have promoted the importance of questioning conventional ways of thinking, and I think this will be invaluable as well.

Do you have guidance or advice for IR Online students or prospective students wishing to enter the Foreign Service?

Do it! Take the test. It doesn’t cost anything and doesn’t hurt you if you don’t pass. You can re-take the test once a year. The people I’m meeting are impressive and intelligent and accomplished, but they are real people looking to go out into the world and implement US policy. I am so excited about the opportunities coming up as a Foreign Service officer. Don’t be afraid or intimidated. Go out and do it! Also, don’t over-prepare, and be honest but NOT modest when describing your achievements and experiences.

What is your favorite memory of IR Online class?

In the “International Relations: History, Theory, Practice” class, we talked quite a bit about opposing and complementary ideologies. The instructor was quite good at getting us to talk about something, and then asking a simple question that put us all in confusion. I remember trying to work out the difference between two terms that seemed opposing, and getting completely flummoxed and frustrated, and finally asking the instructor and class why we even had to try to perceive history through these particular theories. The instructor smiled and said, “Good questions. Should we bother?” And that kicked off a whole new class discussion and debate. This is an example of an instructor getting us, the newest IR thinkers, to question traditional IR philosophies and accepted theories, and I felt like the class was suddenly freed to critique all the old scholars! We eventually decided that the theory was a useful tool, but that it was too limited. We, the students, came to that conclusion—and then the instructor argued with us. I like this type of learning!

Thank you for your time. Do you have anything else you’d like us to know?

You don’t have to be an international relations expert to join the Foreign Service. My current class is filled with Foreign Service Officers from the Peace Corps or professional education or the military or sales; they’re from all over the world and have degrees in liberal arts, sciences, and politics. They’re older and younger, single, married, divorced. If you have the interest, apply!