Tips for Summer Hires and Their Supervisors

My first job was as a summer hire at the US Embassy in Brasilia, I helped facilitate bilateral communications by writing Diplomatic Notes, drafting Government Cables and I even got an email from Secretary of State John Kerry.

This is what I’m planning on writing on my college applications and telling my non-embassy friends. It sounds way more important and complicated than it really is. You and I both know that the entire State Department got that email, and that writing cables (in my case at least) consisted solely of copying and pasting. But, hey, diplomatic notes are kinda fun. I like the official-looking paper (I am easily amused).

I’ve been working in the Human Resources Office of the Embassy for the past four weeks. I can’t emphasize how odd it is for me to sit behind my desk: working, emailing, scanning, shredding (not nearly as fun as I thought it would be) answering phones, faxing (I may or may not have thought that faxing died out when telegrams did… who knew?) Though objectively I know that the Embassy is a workplace, in my mind it has always just been a huge, private, heavily guarded clubhouse that my sister and I would hang out at during the summer.

I admit I was worried coming into this job because:

  1. It’s my first job.
  2. It’s summer… shouldn’t I be sleeping?
  3. Is it going to be boring or hard?

But the people in my section immediately welcomed me and put me to work.

It took some adjusting, I had a whole mental debate about what I should call my colleagues that went something like this: “Is it Jake or Mr. Fairhurst? Everyone else calls him Jake… but they are his age. I can’t just call him ‘you.’ I suppose I could just never say his name… but that might get confusing…”

I still haven’t really figured it out so I just call everyone by a mixture of the formal and informal. I was lucky to get assigned to a section that is radically understaffed and overworked. It wasn’t long before my desk was covered in folders and I was on the phone struggling to schedule interviews in Portuguese.

I’ve been asked to write a few tips to summer hires and their supervisors in an attempt to make the summer hire program as beneficial to both parties as possible. I hope most of the other summer hires would agree with what I say but it is a very individual experience. This is my advice:

You have to ask for work.

It is very easy to sit at your desk and pretend to be working. But it gets boring after a while, I promise. The days go much faster when you are busy. So gather the strength, walk around your office and just ask, “Do you need help with anything?”

At first I was worried I might be bothering my colleagues because the answer was always “no.” So, I went back to my desk and pretended to write important things down on Post-It notes (hint: the more Post-Its you have stuck on your desk the more professional it looks) but then a magical thing happened. One by one, people came to my desk asking me to help them with things. By putting yourself out there you make it easier for them to ask you for help.

Nothing is too menial for you to do.

Is filing fun? No it is not. But it’s helpful. Being helpful was my objective this summer: whatever needed doing, I did it. I might have whined about it a little bit, but that’s beside the point. You can make the smaller stuff fun and easy so that you can move on to the more engaging things (hint: bring an mp3 player to listen to while you are filing or shredding) .

Approach your office as you would approach a family Thanksgiving dinner at your friend’s house.

In other words: proceed with caution. You are new! You do not know or understand the little nuances of how things work yet. Sit back, observe and take note, but avoid choosing sides in arguments. Be a peacekeeper and a source of relaxed, unbiased energy.

Talk to your coworkers.

Laugh, make jokes, and ask questions. I can see how being a summer hire would be rather painful and awkward if you didn’t make friends with the people around you, either by choice or if you don’t speak the local language. I was scared to open my mouth at all the first day or two but trust me, it’s worth it. You will work 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., five days a week with these people. They are willing to translate and/or have their ears verbally assaulted by your [insert local language here] if you just try.

Getting “teen-speak” out of your head is harder than you think

Focus on your word choice but don’t beat yourself up if an “totally awesome” slips out of your mouth. I want to make it clear that I am NOT saying censor yourself. Speak how you normally speak but know when you should try to make it a little more mainstream: Are you:

Joking around by making fun of your colleague’s soccer teams? Use whatever words you wish.

Scheduling job interviews over the phone? Yeah, probably not.

I can’t properly put into words how hard it was for me to stop saying “OK, cool, do you have any other questions?” I’m normally pretty good at controlling my slang usage. I got rid of the word “like” from my vocabulary in the 8th grade, but I don’t think I was even aware how many “awesomes,” “cools,” “totallys,” and “gotcha dogs” there were in my everyday speech (hint: talk slower if you’re having this problem, it gives you one or two extra seconds to choose a word).

Advice to summer hire bosses

Summer hires are excellent filers–but so is a well-trained monkey.

By giving summer hires real work, you’ll make them feel valued and they won’t disappoint you. I know it takes more time and energy to explain and teach someone how to do something that you could do in your sleep, but in the long run it will save you time and your summer hire will feel empowered and helpful. A happy summer hire is a productive summer hire, and a productive summer makes workloads lighter which makes for a happy Embassy section.

Keep in mind that your summer hire is a teenager.

Though they might give off an “I’ve got this” vibe, they are scared. “Miranda will you draft this cable for me please?” Yes, of course I will. Once I stop shaking and figure out what on God’s green earth these acronyms mean: AMGT, KCOM, ASEC, AODE, KMRS, APER, AFIN, BR, ABLD, PINR.

I mean come on now, I’m a Foreign Service kid. I know my acronyms. I can dole out PCS, HHE, UAB, HR, RSO, CLO, FMO, and GSO like it’s nobody’s business, but it does get a little out of hand. One good thing that every one of my bosses did was to tack on, “If you have any questions just ask.”

Make sure the section knows in advance about the summer hire.

Tell everyone that a teenager is coming ready and willing to do whatever you throw on their desk. That way they can set aside different tasks for the summer hire to do. This benefits both the section and the summer hire because if you’re able to give to them something to do right out of the gate, it will make them feel expected and needed. (My section broke me in with a stack of filing that went up to my nose. It is a rite of passage, I suppose.)

Find yourself tempted to make up work just to get your summer hire to stop making crossbows out of office materials (I may or may not have made one in my very limited down time). Lend out your summer hire: send them to a section you know doesn’t have one and could use some help. You can always send them down to the mailroom to help out. (No I’m not saying that because I’m the mailroom supervisor’s daughter… of course not…) Or tell them if it’s OK for them to work on their school summer assignments when they don’t have anything to do so that they are still being productive in one way or another.

In the end being a summer hire, like a lot in life, gives back what you put into it. If you seek out work you’ll learn, the days will go by fast, and you’ll turn your colleagues into your friends. I loved my experience and I plan to do it again next summer (as long as they assign me to the HRO!)

Miranda Salazar is a senior at St. Andrew’s High School in Middleton, DE. Prior to breaking her Consular Officer mother’s heart, and heading for boarding school, Miranda lived with her parents, younger sister and two cats in Brasilia, Brazil; São Paulo, Brazil; Lisbon, Portugal; and Accra, Ghana. Before her mother joined the State Department, Miranda also lived in Windhoek, Namibia.

Miranda is a self-proclaimed nerd who loves to immerse herself in Star Trek or Battlestar and who can quote great swaths of the television show, West Wing. She also enjoys music, photography, drawing, and sharking the local Marines in ping pong. She is currently applying to colleges at which she hopes to study International Relations and Conflict Resolution.

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