Michael McClellan, a senior foreign service officer for the U.S. State Department, is about to retire from a profession “he just fell into.”
The Bowling Green area native has 29 years of public diplomacy under his belt in 11 different embassies around the globe. However, when he was in his mid-20s, pursuing a doctorate, he didn’t really have a clue what he wanted to do.
McClellan spoke Thursday evening at Gary Ransdell Hall on Western Kentucky University’s campus about “Successful Careers in the Age of Globalization” [link added], sponsored by the WKU Honors College.
McClellan, most recently deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Juba, South Sudan, told the audience that 30,000 people take the test to work for the U.S. State Department, and the government hires only 200. “About 1 percent of the people who take the test actually get the job,” he said. When he took the test the first time, he failed it by one point.
McClellan was raised on a farm in the Richardsville area, and today he has a farm a quarter of a mile from where he grew up. In the sixth grade, his family moved to Bardstown. He eventually attended the University of Louisville and Syracuse University. He was pursuing a career in photojournalism, wanting to travel the world. He’d never thought about foreign service until he met a man whose family had been stationed overseas for the Central Intelligence Agency.
“I did not plan on having a career in the foreign service, but my mind was open to other possibilities,” he said. McClellan told the students there were 13 qualities they could seek in themselves that will not only prepare them for a possible career in foreign service, but also increase their opportunities for success: composure; cultural adaptability; ability to integrate information; apply initiative; exercise judgment; discern what is appropriate, practical and realistic; objectivity and integrity; oral communication; planning and organizing; tracking trends seen in data; resourcefulness; the ability to work with others; and written communication.
“You have to be ready for unanticipated circumstances,” he said. When the president of Sudan fired his entire Cabinet, McClellan said, the embassy staff had to work quickly to figure out with whom they could do business.
“Things happen overseas much faster than they do in the United States,” he said.
McClellan said it is important to study the culture, government and history of the United States so that when you are overseas, you can talk intelligently about your homeland.
“People are going to ask you about your culture,” he said.
Kennedy McAlpin, a WKU freshman majoring in biology from Somerset, found McClellan’s talk helpful.
“It was really good information. It’s really neat he didn’t know what he wanted to do,” McAlpin said, identifying with McClellan’s early struggle of picking out a career.