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SIS Alum Embraces the Journey Toward a Career in Diplomacy

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Many students have a specific career path in mind while they are in school; however, that path to a dream job may not always be a linear one. Ben Harbaugh, SIS/MA ’21, began his graduate school experience with one goal in mind: to get a job with the US Department of State. After graduation, Ben received a fellowship from the Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) program and began his career with the US Space Force. He went on to use those skills and experiences while working at the US Embassy in Zambia, and now, Ben serves at the State Department back in the US. We talked with Ben about his time at SIS, his experience in the PMF program, and why he’s grateful for the twists and turns in his career path.

Finding a Path

After graduating from Central Washington University with a bachelor’s degree in music education, Harbaugh felt a pull toward diplomacy. When it was time to pick a graduate school, he made the journey from one Washington to the other to pursue a master's degree in the US Foreign Policy and National Security program at SIS.

“I had very little background in this area, so it was really key for me to find a program that gave me the skill set needed to be an effective foreign affairs professional and have a realistic understanding of what a career at the State Department might look like,” says Harbaugh.

Harbaugh’s time at SIS was full of classroom and experiential learning, including visits to embassies, networking events with EU representatives, and countless opportunities to learn from industry professionals inside and outside the classroom: “Some of my teachers were retired ambassadors, academics, and former intelligence community folks so that practitioner element was really helpful. My professors guided me, and shaped my understanding of a career in foreign affairs with answers as to what that career looked like and the skills needed to be successful.”

Opportunity Knocks

During his final semester at SIS, Harbaugh decided to apply for the prestigious Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) program, a two-year leadership development program administered by the US Office of Personnel Management. AU is a top-10 PMF finalist-producing school, and it offers a comprehensive preparation course for PMF applicants. AU boasts a 98% success rate of PMF finalists becoming fellows.

After passing the initial PMF exam, applicants become finalists and have one year to apply for and be accepted for a fellowship in the federal government. Harbaugh took full advantage of the PMF resources that AU provides, including meeting with coordinators about potential fellowship options.

“The PMF office at AU was very helpful in weighing the competing demands of time versus the offers I received. They thoughtfully worked through the options with me,” Harbaugh said.

Joining the Space Force

Harbaugh’s first PMF placement was with the newest branch of the US military—the US Space Force. After moving to Los Angeles for the fellowship, he joined the Space Force as a Cybersecurity Program Manager. It was an opportunity to learn more about an important and emerging field.

“I had to familiarize myself with the cyber and space fields, as I had limited exposure before joining the Space Force. Thankfully, the PMF offered many training opportunities, so it was helpful as I was trying to quickly get up to speed and contribute to our mission,” Harbaugh said.

During his time serving with the Space Force, Harbaugh oversaw numerous contracts related to cyber and space equities, liaising with contractors that provided a variety of products to cyber warfighters. As a nascent branch of the military, the Space Force is taking the opportunity to introduce new ways of thinking and new approaches to problem-solving, according to Harbaugh: “I think Space Force is trying to take advantage of this opportunity to do things differently by asking how it can deliver efficiently, and how this new part of the military can position itself to be on the cutting edge of cyber and space capabilities."

The Path Leads to Zambia

The PMF program offers its fellows rotation opportunities, and once accepted, fellows have the chance to work with US embassies abroad for a six-month rotation. Following his initial rotation with the Space Force, Harbaugh started a rotation as a political officer at the US Embassy in Lusaka, Zambia. During his time in Zambia, he worked on a variety of issues, including democratic reforms, human trafficking, and political-military affairs. While on rotation, Harbaugh got to experience Zambian culture, connect with other diplomats in the region, and even work with counterparts in the Zambian government to support the passage of legislation in the Zambian parliament.

“The US government supported a piece of legislation that had stalled in the Zambian parliament for three or four years, and I was tasked with taking the lead on the legislation at a crucial time for US-Zambian cooperation," Harbaugh said. "Through my intensive engagement with relevant stakeholders at our embassy, in Washington, and the Zambian Ministry of Home Affairs, I was able to get the legislation 'unstuck' and it was signed into law late last year. It was one of the most challenging and rewarding professional experiences of my career and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to further US foreign policy and increase protections for marginalized individuals."

For his work, Harbaugh received the Meritorious Honor Award from the Ambassador in recognition of his sustained outstanding performance.

Following his rotation in Zambia, Harbaugh recently returned to the US and permanently transferred from the Space Force to the State Department. He currently serves as a NATO Desk Officer in the State Department’s Office of European Security and Political Affairs in the Defense and Deterrence unit. In this role, he covers cyber security, resilience, and emerging and disruptive technologies.

The Journey Continues

Harbaugh’s academic and professional career has taken a winding path, but he remains grateful for every opportunity, even the ones that were unexpected. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck during his second semester of the program, Harbaugh said he found himself considering opportunities he never thought about previously: “When COVID hit and I had all this extra time, I decided to apply for the PMF, which I don’t think I would have done if I was in the hustle and bustle of normal Washington.”

Through his time as a PMF, Harbaugh has gained valuable experience by taking chances and exploring new avenues. Now, Harbaugh says he’s ready to continue his diplomacy career as a civil servant with the State Department: “In my situation and career path, there were turns and curves in the road that I wouldn't have predicted, but they led me here, and it's a journey that was worthwhile.”

*All views expressed in this piece are the subject's own