Q&A with Kristin Smith (MAAS '14) - Center for Contemporary Arab Studies | Georgetown University

After receiving her undergraduate degree in Near Eastern Languages and Civilization at Harvard University, Kristin Smith began the MAAS program and graduated with a concentration in Culture and Society in 2014. Currently, Smith resides in Lebanon, and works as the Cultural Affairs Officer for the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. 

What does a typical day at work look like for you?

I work as the Cultural Affairs Officer for the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.  What I do exactly changes on an hourly basis.  My portfolio covers five primary issues:
Arts and Culture (which includes our cooperations with local cultural and artistic institutions, film and music festivals, and local artists),
Non-Formal Education (which includes our English language programs throughout Lebanon for both students and local teachers),
Academic Outreach (which consists of maintaining relationships with local universities to spread information on our exchange programs, facilitate speaker programs, and facilitate interaction with partner institutions in the U.S.),
Interfaith and Minority Outreach (which includes programs aimed to reach minority communities and encourage tolerance),
Alumni Programming (which includes supervising grant projects implemented by dedicated alumni of State Department programs).

A typical day could begin at 8 am walking though the Cultural Affairs offices speaking to my team about the priorities for the day.  An hour later I’d find myself drinking coffee at the gallery of a local artist with whom I’m discussing a grant for a film festival screening that touches on an aspect of U.S. culture.  Within an hour, I might travel to speak to a group of rural English teachers about the importance of religious diversity inside the classroom.  At 4pm I snag a few minutes at my desk to review budgets for our large grant programs and make a quick phone call to Main State to discuss an upcoming MOU on preventing cultural heritage trafficking.  At night I might find myself at an independent theatre in one of Beirut’s hip neighborhoods downtown to watch a performance by a former participant in one of our International Visitor Leadership programs.  The days vary drastically, but the range of cultural affairs work is vast and exciting.

What were you doing before this job, and how do you think your past experiences (both in past jobs and at Georgetown) helped to shape your interests?

Before working as a Foreign Service Officer I was a grad student at MAAS and the manager of a local yoga studio.  I’ve learned that all experience is valuable– as a yoga studio manager, I learned how to supervise and empower employees, manage money, and communicate with clients.  All of these skills are foundations of what I currently do on a day-to-day basis.  The audience and function may have changed, but the core competencies are the same.  Georgetown helped me hone these raw skills and apply them in the international affairs context.

What do you like best about your job and how do you feel it impacts others?

I like that my job allows me the space to be creative. Last month I organized my first event at the Ambassador’s residence.  It was a curated art reception celebrating the life and works of Gibran Khalil Gibran and what he represents for the U.S.- Lebanon relationship.  As the organizer of this event, I was able to bring together art and politics through meaningful discussion of the role of culture in diplomacy.  Seeing political and art/culture contacts come together and exchange ideas, in a country as complex and fascinating as Lebanon, was moving.

How do you think the MAAS program prepared you for this job and what were some of your favorite memories of the program?

MAAS prepared me for this job in a way that was really unexpected.  As a Culture and Society concentrator, I shied away from development work and the more financial/math-based courses.  I did, however, take a few courses in this category to meet the concentration requirements and diversify my course load.  I now manage a budget of approximately 5 million dollars in grants and consistently use the knowledge I acquired in my development courses to evaluate the potential of a program to succeed, the program’s potential biases against certain populations of participants, and to monitor and evaluate the program’s success.

One of my favorite memories from the program was how all of the students would congregate in the computer room between classes and talk about everything from drinks the night before to Keynesian economics.  A lot of what I know now I learned from casual conversations in the CCAS public areas.  In fact, some of the random bits of knowledge I picked up from these conversations contributed to my later understanding of questions on the Foreign Service exam!

If you could give one piece of advice to students who want to do what you do, what would it be?

Be bold.  Ask questions.  Write essays about things you believe in.  Use class time to workshop theories for future real-world problems and programs.  Congregate in public spaces and learn all you can from your classmates.  This program will prepare you for life after grad school, but while you’re still in school, enjoy the free flow of thought and remember those thought processes when you leave.  The critical thinking component of MAAS is unique and a tool that you will take with you and use in any position you hold post-graduation.


By Mary Margaret Ewens
Mary Margaret is a graduate student in the Communications, Culture, and Technology program at Georgetown.