From Bologna to the U.S. Foreign Service

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Alumni-Erika HolnerBy CAITLIN WATSON

Erika Holner began SAIS Bologna in 2013 and left to join the U.S. Foreign Service in 2014. She currently serves as a political officer in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

For Erika Holner, the past year has been a whirlwind. Since August 2013, Holner has moved to Italy to begin her graduate studies, ended her graduate studies, trained for the Foreign Service in Washington, and moved to Haiti to embark on her career as a foreign service officer.

A Vermont native, Holner arrived at SAIS’ Bologna campus in 2013 to hone the skills and knowledge she thought she would need to join the U.S. Foreign Service. But, unlike many SAIS students who come to SAIS with diplomatic ambitions, by the time she began her first semester at SAIS, Holner had not only completed the Foreign Service testing process, but had a place on the register of potential hires.  

During her first semester in Bologna in 2013, Holner took and passed the Foreign Service French language exam, which boosted her position on the register.

Yet, in a struggling economy and amidst government budget cuts, hiring at the State Department was scarce, meaning only those applicants with the very highest scores were being hired, slowly.

“I came to SAIS to give my self options in case I didn’t get hired,” said Holner. “Essentially, I thought: if I get an offer [from the State Department], this experience [SAIS] will have been valuable to my future career… if not, it will give me more experience to bolster my candidacy if I apply again.”

In Bologna, while eagerly watching the yahoo group where she could track her progress as she inched up the list, Holner concentrated in American Foreign Policy and ERE and thought a lot about what she might do if she were offered a Foreign Service position.

Finally, in February of her second semester, Holner received the long-awaited notice: she had been invited to join the March 2014 Foreign Service training class. While thrilled and surprised, her acceptance to the Foreign Service also induced anxiety as she wondered whether to take the offer and take leave from SAIS or to defer her candidacy and complete the semester. The offer also gave her little time to pack up, leave Bologna, and settle into Washington.

“Once I was accepted, it actually wasn’t such a tough decision,” Holner said. “There were some practical and administrative issues to sort out, but otherwise, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity—especially with the unpredictable hiring process.”

Holner worked with the administration to smooth her departure from SAIS and, within two weeks of receiving her offer letter, she was on a plane back to her hometown in Vermont, to pack up for Washington.

After a relatively short training time in Washington of six months, where, in addition to basic Foreign Service training, Holner learned to speak Creole. She headed to Haiti, where she now works as a political officer.

“It’s been a really interesting experience, so far,” Holner said of her first few months on the job.  
“There are days when I feel really settled in, and many others when I feel like I’m still getting a handle on things.”

On a daily basis, Holner obtains and analyzes information and reports it to Washington after having it approved through appropriate channels at the post in Haiti. She is in charge of reporting on security issues, the development and performance of the national police, gangs, protests and Haitian economic migrants trying to reach the United States.

Holner is also charged with producing the “international religious freedom” report for Haiti—a congressionally-mandated report that each foreign service post around the world must produce on a yearly basis. This has been challenging in Haiti, where religious freedom is not one of the more significant challenges the country faces, yet the report-writing and editing process is arduous.

Before SAIS, Holner worked in the hospitality industry. First, for Costa Cruise Lines, she served as a liaison for English-speaking passengers. Later, she helped manage hotels in Boston.

With Costa, Holner learned how to manage people and honed her diplomatic skills. “I spent my days managing people’s expectations, being friendly but enforcing rules, observing people of different cultures. I was also exposed to a lot of foreign languages, which I loved.”  

All these skills, Holner said, have proven invaluable to her Foreign Service experience so far.

As for SAIS, the students and the professors she met and interacted with, she says, taught her a great deal. “With Professor Harper, I learned a lot about American Foreign policy that has been really valuable to me already. My previous work experience was definitely important, but SAIS offered me a space to think more deeply and academically about the history of U.S. foreign policy and what that means for diplomacy and international affairs today,” Holner said.

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