Notes from the Field: Sara Kassir '15

Rockefeller Center-funded interns reflect on their experiences as part of our "Notes from the Field" series. Click here to read more about the Rockefeller Center's Internships program. To read the entire series, click here.

Student Intern: Sara Kassir '15

Internship Organization: US State Department – Washington, DC

How would you describe your employer in one paragraph? What’s the elevator pitch?
Within the State Department, I am working for the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, which reports to the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. We work with other US government agencies and NGO's to break cycles of violent conflict, strengthen civilian security, and mitigate crises in priority areas of US national security. Unlike other parts of the State Department, CSO is dedicated to working in parts of the world where it feels it can make an impact within 12 to 18 months. The Bureau works with field team operatives to not only stabilize the regions it works in, but to promote the rule of law, accountability for atrocities, and empowerment of youth and women. In addition to conducting conflict analysis and strategy development, we engage with host nation partners that include civil society, community leaders, media activists, technical experts, and minority groups to create locally driven initiatives to meet specific community needs. Interestingly, the Bureau is only a few years old and was created by Secretary Clinton to revamp US ability to respond to international crises. It replaced the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS).

What are your specific responsibilities in the organization?
I am the intern for CSO's Overseas Operations 1 Team, which is dedicated to the MENA region and currently focused on Syria. My responsibilities include assisting with the programs and analytics pillars of the team, though I also do some clerical and administrative work. What I do changes every day and I am often engaging with different employees as they come up with new projects for me to help them on.

How did you feel on the first day of your internship?
On my first day, I had orientation with the rest of the State Department interns for the winter, the majority of whom were graduate students going to school in the DC area. I thought that I would be working with some of them for the duration of the term, but ended up being surprised that no other interns were placed in my specific office. When I finished the general orientation that was mostly security briefings, computer log-in information sessions, and instructions on getting badges, I made my way over to my bureau. I realized on the way that I had spilled my coffee all over the front of my dress about 4 hours ago. I met the administrative assistant who gave me a very warm welcome and took me around and introduced me to just about every person in the Bureau. The next day, I quickly regretted not trying harder to remember their names when I was asked to distribute some paperwork and track who had received it.

What is your favorite part of the internship so far?
My father was born and raised in Syria, and I spent many summers of my childhood and adolescence visiting Damascus. The conflict broke out during my senior year in high school, and though I had always been interested in studying international relations in college, the direct connection to such a situation provided further motivation for me to understand how such crises unfold and can be prevented. My mother's family is also from the Caucasus Mountains of Russia, so the experience of conflict is very much so a part of the recent history of my heritage. Because I understand on a very personal level just how detrimental political instability and violence can be, it has been a sincere honor to learn from people who have dedicated their careers to solving the world's hardest problems in order to make a difference. During meetings, I have been asked to share my opinions and insights given my cultural knowledge of the region, and am very happy to feel that my thoughts are heard and well received by the employees. Knowing that I am using my perspective to contribute to CSO's mission in some way is incredibly rewarding and encourages me that this is the type of work I would like to do after graduation.

What challenges have you faced so far?
My first week, I received primarily clerical and administrative tasks. While any intern knows that the work won't all be glamorous, I was initially worried that I would not end up getting the exposure to the real substance of the work CSO does. I reached out to the office directors via email with my concerns, explaining to them that I was more than happy to assist with some clerical tasks, but that I also wanted to work on projects specific to the Bureau. They were extremely receptive, and I ended up meeting with each of them in person. We discussed what I thought my strengths were, my specific interests, their career paths, and general questions about the Bureau. By my second week, I was happier with not only the work I was being given, but also the relationships I had established with my supervisors early on.

What do you hope to achieve by the end of your internship?
More than anything, I am using this internship to gage whether or not I would be interested in working for the US Government in the future. I am also using the experience to try DC on for size, to take a break for academics, and to develop skills that will hopefully be useful regardless of where I end up working down the line. Additionally, I am hoping that the work I am doing will in some way inspire a topic for my senior thesis for the Government Department.

What have been some practical lessons you've learned in the day-to-day life of your internship?
Turn your transit subsidy form in ASAP - mine only took a day to process, but my roommate is working for another part of the government and hers took 2 weeks!