Virtual Student Foreign Service Program Manager
Department of State
Engaged a growing number of college students who contribute new skills, ideas and energy to assist diplomatic and international development programs around the world while working remotely from any location.
The State Department dispatches people to countries all over the world, but it has tried something new during the past few years—employing student interns who stay at their universities while working on projects in distant places such as Botswana, Cyprus, India and the Marshall Islands.
These students are part of a “virtual” foreign service that has grown exponentially during the past five years under the management of 33-year-old Bridget Roddy, the Virtual Student Foreign Service program manager.
This program started at the State Department in 2009 with 44 projects and has grown significantly to include 10 additional federal agencies, more than 300 projects annually and 650 positions, due in large part to Roddy’s success educating students and agencies about the benefits and possibilities of virtual internships.
“In the internship world, this is very cutting edge,” said Eric Woodard, director of fellowships and internships at the Smithsonian Institution, a participating agency. “For her to manage and grow this program is a real achievement.”
During the 2014-2015 academic year, more than 3,300 students applied for a virtual internship. Those who landed one dedicate an average of 10 hours of work a week during their academic year. Operating virtually, they have served as journalists, scientists, mathematicians, graphic designers, researchers and social media experts for a variety of agencies from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the NASA.
Projects during the 2014-2015 academic year range from creating political and economic data summaries on cities in Mexico and conducting research on trends in Chinese investment in the U.S. to mentoring students in Gambia as they apply to colleges and universities in the U.S. and around the world.
The interns supplement the work of full-time employees and provide agencies with extra staff to complete significant initiatives as well as routine tasks. The program “helps the State Department and other agencies improve their work,” said Eric Nelson, director of State’s Office of eDiplomacy.
“It gives offices the opportunity to fix a deficit, whether that’s just a pure time deficit or a skill deficit,” said Nelson. He added that it also helps the department be “more agile” in meeting the demands it faces.
Every agency has work it can’t get to, said Patricia Lacina, a deputy chief information officer in State Department’s Bureau of Information Resource Management. The Virtual Student Foreign Service provides “this whole gamut of skills and interests, and that is really the strength of it.”
For the students, the internship provides valuable work experience and an opportunity to apply classroom lessons, while giving them a window into the workings of the federal government. It also opens government internship options for individuals who have children at home or lack the financial means to move to Washington, D.C. to work without a salary.
For example, a pregnant student who applied would not have been able to travel to Washington for a typical internship during her school year. After completing the program, she entered government service full time, and now works for the Government Accountability Office.
Roddy expanded the initiative by working closely with the State Department’s legal and human resources offices to determine how it would complement internship programs at other federal agencies.
“It took a while to think out how the program was going to work, who the audience was going to be and how we would recruit for something that people had never heard of before,” said Roddy.
She had to overcome agencies’ skepticism about a new, unfamiliar program and convince people that virtual internships would be beneficial for both the students and the federal agencies. She explained that the interns are a free resource for helping agencies, and that they are enthusiastic recruits, comfortable with technology and armed with new ideas and approaches.
“She’s always looking for opportunities to get the story out, not just to the applicants but within the departments, and to the people who need to create the job profiles,” said Nelson.
When other agencies approach Roddy about the “eInternships,” she explains how the State Department set up its program so they can establish their own. She also lets them know they can partner with the department for as long as they like.
“It’s a free resource for them. It’s a very easy win for the agencies,” Roddy said.
The program’s success has led to a similar program for professionals started within the past year that is called the Virtual Foreign Service Fellows program.
Roddy, whose father was in the Foreign Service, remains committed to spreading the word about the program and expanding its scope, and believes the virtual internships are really making a difference.
“Hearing how volunteering 10 hours a week has changed a student’s career track or made them more interested in entering government is very rewarding,” Roddy said.