A Day in the Life of Beirut’s Cultural Attaché
By Vicki Valosik
For Kristin Smith, MAAS alum and Cultural Affairs Officer for the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, culture and diplomacy go hand-in-hand. “My job is really using culture and art to bring people closer together,” Smith told the Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star at a U.S. Embassy event celebrating the Lebanese writer Khalil Gibran. “It’s not just about deepening our ties and getting to know each other on a cultural level though. If we have these similarities in [the arts], then perhaps that will lead to future cooperation in other ways.”
During her time in the MA in Arab Studies program, Smith—who holds a BA in Near Eastern Languages and Civilization from Harvard—pursued an academic concentration in Culture and Society, managed a yoga studio, and served as a Public Diplomacy Fellow at the U.S. Consulate General in Casablanca. Following graduation, she joined the Foreign Service, serving in Taiwan before beginning her current position in 2017. Her portfolio as Cultural Affairs Officer covers five primary issues: arts and culture, non-formal education, academic outreach, interfaith and minority outreach, and alumni programming.
What is a typical day for a Cultural Affairs Officer?
Smith: A typical day could begin at 8 a.m. 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 4 p.m., 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.
How did the MAAS program prepare you for this position?
Smith: Studying Arabic five days a week in the MAAS program allowed me to hit the ground running. Through the intensive program, I tested above the language requirement for my position, which enabled me to jump right into the job without needing a year of language study. I was immediately able to engage with the media using Fousha [formal Arabic] and felt confident integrating Arabic into public remarks. At the same time, my studies laid a solid foundation for speaking and understanding Lebanese Arabic.
MAAS prepared me in another way that was unexpected. I manage a budget of approximately 5 million dollars in grants and consistently use the knowledge I acquired in my development courses at MAAS to evaluate a program’s potential biases as well as its potential for success. As a yoga studio manager, I learned how to supervise and empower employees, manage money, and communicate with clients—all skills that are the foundation of what I currently do. Georgetown helped me hone these raw skills and core competencies and apply them in the international affairs context.
What you like best about your job and how do you feel it impacts others?
Smith: At our embassy, “cultural affairs” includes not only arts and culture, but also several integrated programs in the civil-society and academic spheres. I like that my team and I are able to shape innovative tools to serve different communities and address a variety of socio-economic issues, even though they may not always involve what people consider to be “cultural” activities. These have ranged from an entrepreneurship program that addresses unemployment among underserved youth in Tripoli to a tourism-promotion project to rehabilitate a hiking route in a mountainous village. It’s never a dull moment, and I like that I am helping people implement tools that help their communities, while also strengthening our people-to-people ties.
Vicki Valosik is the CCAS Multimedia and Publications Editor.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2018 CCAS Newsmagazine.