Nina Lewis works with an elementary school student at Lesotho State Library
After graduating from the Florida International University College of Law in 2006, Nina Lewis began a journey which would lead her to join the U.S. Diplomatic Corps.
We recently caught up with Lewis to discuss her career path and what led her on this journey.
Can you trace your career path after law school? What led you to join the U.S. Diplomatic Corps?
I graduated from FIU Law in May 2006. I spent the summer studying for the bar, took the July exam and sent out applications to masters degree programs. During law school, I was in the part-time program and was teaching full-time at a local high school. After four years of sheer exhaustion, I wanted to enjoy some time off while waiting to see if I passed the bar, so I left the U.S. to backpack for a few months. During my time as a teacher, I had summers off and did study abroad programs in The Netherlands and Australia. FIU Law’s focus on international law and the study abroad experiences sparked my interest in foreign affairs. I decided that after law school I would do a one-year Master of Arts in International Relations overseas, and learn a foreign language. I was interested in working for the United Nations. While backpacking in New Zealand, after a hike on a glacier, I bought a calling card, found a pay phone and called to find out my bar score: I passed! The same week, I was accepted into a masters program in Brussels and one in Geneva, both starting in September. I ended up in Thailand and found out that the program in Geneva, was also offered in Bangkok and was able to enroll in the course starting in February. I loved it, so I ended up learning Thai instead of French! My faculty advisor was a retired U.S. Ambassador. She was the U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda at the beginning of the genocide. She encouraged me to join the State Department as a Foreign Service Officer.
The application process is arduous and took more than a year. The process is very transparent and consists of a multiple choice test, a series of essay questions, a group and individual assessment, a security clearance, and medical clearance. Once all of the steps are complete, candidates are placed on a rank ordered register and are eligible for employment. If you are not called within a year, you are removed from the register and have to start again. The ranks are based on test scores and bonus points for foreign language proficiency. All the details are online at careers.state.gov.
Did your time at FIU Law also help prepare you for your volunteer work? How so?
While working on the State Department’s application process, my husband and I founded a small grassroots non-profit organization in rural Thailand. As a law student at FIU, I did pro-bono work with the ACLU on civil rights restoration for ex-convicts. Helping people get their rights restored was extremely fulfilling work and helped me realize that I love doing volunteer work. We started a small sustainable agriculture project and helped link larger NGOs with this impoverished community. My law degree was essential to setting up the foundation and ensuring that it was legally registered for donations and operations.
You recently finished a 2 year tour in Southern Africa. Can you tell us about that?
I was called for orientation in June of 2010. The State department moved us from our home in Thailand to an apartment in Arlington, Virginia, and I started a 6-week orientation course. In our first week, I was given a list of available jobs and locations. I had a week to research the different positions and posts and submit a list of preferences. Later that month, I was sworn in as a U.S. diplomat and assigned to my first post: Public Affairs Officer at U.S. Embassy Maseru. Maseru is the capital of Lesotho, a small Kingdom completely surrounded by the country of South Africa. I chose it based on the position description and a desire to be at a small embassy. The position was management level, and I was in charge of a wide variety of programs designed to promote mutual understanding between the people of Lesotho and America. I dealt with media inquiries, managed social media and the embassy website, ran exchange programs including Fulbright and International Visitors Leadership Program and drafted all Embassy press releases and speeches. Lesotho was an amazing place to work. During the two year post in Lesotho, I was able to do a ton of vacation travel in Southern Africa. We went on safari in Krueger Park, did wine tastings in Cape Town, and hiked through the Kalahari Desert.
Your next assignment is in Guangzhou, China. Can you tell us about that?
My next assignment is Guangzhou, China, where I will serve as a vice consul. The consulate issues visas to Chinese Nationals and provides American Citizen Services. All adoptions of Chinese children by American parents are processed at the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou. The job requires a working level knowledge of written and spoken Mandarin Chinese, so I am currently in a 36 week intensive Mandarin Chinese training program.
What advice would you give to law students who are interested in pursuing a similar career?
Representing America overseas and helping American Citizens far away from home is an extremely rewarding career. Although I did not always plan to be a U.S. diplomat, I know I have found my calling. I use my law degree every day in analyzing information, regulations and professional writing. I know it will be extremely helpful in working as a vice consul to ensure that all visas are issued in compliance with U.S. law.