Lia Miller has spent most of her adult life representing the United States as a foreign service officer with the State Department. Her work has taken her to five (and counting!) countries including Oman, Tunisia and Bolivia. In this interview, Lia shares her road to becoming a diplomat and how she balances the needs of her career with those of her highly mobile family.
Tell us a little bit about your international story. Did you come from a family of travelers or ex-pats?
My love for all things international, travel and expat-related began at a very young age. I come from a family of adventurers and travelers who instilled their love of travel in me. My maternal grandfather was a contractor for USAID and as a result of that my mother’s formative years were spent living around the world following my grandfather’s career. After my grandfather left government work, he and my grandmother opened a travel agency, and as a youngster, I always found myself there. Listening to all the amazing places my grandparents’ clients were going, browsing the travel maps that were everywhere, looking at the travel photos and posters that covered the walls and spinning the globe that somehow found its way into the agency and daydreaming of all the amazing places in the world I might like to visit. The seed was planted and it never went away.
I first went abroad in college when I could finally scrape together enough of my own coins to take some amazing trips to Western Europe, Mexico and the Caribbean and later to many more places.
You are currently serving as a US diplomat. Could you explain what that role means for those who don’t know and how you entered your career?
Yes, since I graduated from grad school. Being a ‘diplomat’ means that I am working for the American people every day that I am overseas, when not on vacation. Every day, I am advancing political, social and economic interests that maintain and improve our way of life in the US and I work to find common ground with the citizens of the country I am assigned to at a given time. Within the Foreign Service, there are five areas of expertise or cones: Public Diplomacy, Management, Consular, Economic and Political affairs. Initially, I wanted to be a Political Officer but after doing a couple of internships in Public Affairs offices, I knew I had found my place. However, I have been fortunate in my career to have worked in every cone and I have enjoyed them all, though my bread and butter will always be public diplomacy.
I started this career as a graduate student when I became a Thomas R. Pickering Fellow. The Thomas R. Pickering Fellowship program, fondly known as the Pickering program, is designed to increase and improve the diversity of the diplomatic (Foreign Service) corps to be more reflective of larger society by targeting otherwise qualified candidates who also represent an underrepresented demographic in the foreign service. You can visit the Pickering Fellowship website for more details of the program, which not only paid for my grad school education but has also been life-defining for me.
As a diplomatic woman of color, have you had experiences where this has had an impact?
Absolutely and all largely positive. Depending upon where in the world I am serving, because I am a woman of color the audience is more receptive to me because they perceive me as ‘one of their own or as someone they feel comfortable engaging with. This sometimes helps the communication and political barriers come down for me in ways that other colleagues don’t get to experience and gives me an opportunity to make genuine connections. In some places where my color and gender make a difference in the way I am treated, usually, once it is discovered that I am American I am treated as an equal and it allows me to sometimes transcend the confines that other societal norms and expectations would have held me to otherwise.
Where have you lived as a result of your career and what do you think you’ve learned having lived in so many different places?
As a college student, I lived in Spain and Chile. In my career, I’ve lived in the Middle East and Latin America and I am headed next to Eastern Europe, a part of the world I haven’t been to before. I am looking forward to exploring the region fully.
I’ve learned that despite being in some very memorable places with highly distinctive cultures, at our cores we are more alike than we are different and we all want the same things out of life. I’ve also realized that home is wherever in the world I am and not a particular place. For me home is people.
You are also a spouse and a parent. How has this career impacted your family life? Often one of the challenges for Foreign Service partners is to continue employment abroad, how have you navigated this?
We have been fortunate because my husband is a teacher and we have school-aged children who obviously need to be educated, so everywhere we have been we have done our best to secure employment for my husband in international schools. Thankfully, thus far our family hasn’t been negatively impacted, and traveling and living overseas is the norm for the kids. We will see how that goes as we move forward and the nature of their friendships changes along with their needs.
How do you think your family’s global experiences have impacted your children’s identity (as children of color)?
We make a point of intentionally keeping our children rooted in their history and culture, so they know who they are and where they come from. However, the global experiences they have had are certainly shaping them into different, more open, adaptable and aware global citizens. We also come back to the US every summer so they have the opportunity to see family and friends and to be immersed in their own culture which we hope will help them understand their identity better.
What advice do you have for someone pursuing a career in your field? Why do you see this career pathway as a viable option for those of color?
The advice I would give is to say come one, come all. It is a rewarding career with multiple options for professional and personal growth and you are critically needed. Your perspectives, experiences and most importantly your voice are important in shaping policies that are truly reflective of all facets and peoples in America and ensuring that we are truly representing the America of today and not some archaic notion of someone else’s idealized version.
Yes, this is a viable career option for people of color and frankly, the way I see it, they need you more than you need them in terms of creating a diplomatic corps that truly looks like the face of America. To learn more please visit careers.state.gov.