Alumni Q&A

Switching Gears in the Foreign Service

Shobhit Kumar

Shobhit Kumar Thumbnail
Foreign Service Officer

Shobhit Kumar MA ’20 is a foreign service officer at the U.S. Department of State. He currently serves as special assistant to the ambassador and economic officer at the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, Vietnam. Earlier, Shobhit was the special assistant to the ambassador and vice consul at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, and has also served in Beijing and Doha. Shobhit graduated Phi Beta Kappa with honors from Princeton University with a B.A. in public and international affairs, earning certificates in Mandarin Chinese, history, and the practice of diplomacy. He later graduated with honors from Yale University with an M.A. in global affairs, where he worked with former Secretary of State John Kerry as a Kerry Fellow and taught Mandarin Chinese to Yale College students. He is the recipient of numerous State Department Superior and Meritorious Honor awards. His foreign languages include Mandarin, Hindi, Vietnamese, Korean, Swahili, and Spanish.

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What drew you to be interested in Asia (language, politics, diplomacy)?
If you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, diplomacy wouldn't have even crossed my mind. I grew up in a small town in Maryland and planned to stick around there for the long-term. But when an opportunity came up to transfer to an international high school nestled in the breathtaking mesas of New Mexico, I couldn’t say no.

The United World College-USA (UWC-USA) brings together 200 students from over 80 countries. Surrounded by peers from every corner of the globe, I got hooked on international relations, especially the U.S.-China dynamic. This led me to apply for NSLI-Y, a U.S. government program that placed me at a local high school in Chengdu, Sichuan. I landed there knowing very little about China, but left speaking Mandarin and more fascinated with U.S.-China policy.

The combination of my time at UWC-USA and in China set off a chain of events. I studied public policy and Mandarin at Princeton, and global affairs and Korean at Yale. I spent time at the Brookings Institution working on China-Africa research and now speak Vietnamese daily on a Foreign Service posting in Hanoi. It's wild to think that in just a few years, I went from not speaking a word of Chinese to teaching it at Yale, and also learning about two other Asian cultures.
How were those interests served as a student at Yale Jackson?
Looking back, Jackson was the perfect launchpad for a career in diplomacy; the personal attention and access to faculty made a real difference. When I showed interest in Chinese legal systems, Jackson let me enroll in courses at Yale Law School with experts including Susan Thornton, a former Acting Assistant Secretary of State. When I asked to do independent research, Jackson set up a one-on-one seminar with Dave Rank, the former Acting Ambassador to China, who became a close mentor and friend. Even former Secretary of State John Kerry was one of my advisers at Jackson. I had the opportunity to brief him on China issues and learn from his experiences as secretary, especially in the context of President Obama’s China policy. Having consistent and personal interactions with some of the most distinguished public servants in my field of work set me up well for the Foreign Service.
Tell us about your experiences as a U.S. Foreign Service officer.
One of the coolest aspects of being in the Foreign Service is the chance to switch things up—new countries, new jobs, and never a dull moment. After two fellowships focused on East Asia issues at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and the Office of Taiwan Coordination, I took a two-year stint in Nairobi, Kenya, as special assistant to the ambassador and vice consul. For the first year, I managed communication between the ambassador, the Embassy’s 34 agencies, and almost 2,000 employees. And in one of my most meaningful experiences in the Foreign Service, I went to the Middle East to help evacuate civilians from Afghanistan after its fall to the Taliban. For my second year, I oversaw non-immigrant visas, applying U.S. immigration law to issue tourist, student, and business visas. I also got to explore Kenya and East Africa (lots of safaris)!

Last month, I wrapped up seven months of intensive Vietnamese training in Washington and began a tour in Hanoi as special assistant to the ambassador and an economic officer. In addition to working for the ambassador, I serve as the U.S. government’s main point of contact for digital economy issues in Vietnam.
You’ve studied at several elite institutions around the world. In your mind, what sets Jackson apart?
When it comes to public policy schools, Jackson fills a unique niche. On one hand, you have the vast resources of Yale—funding is always available for research and internships and outstanding faculty members are always available for mentorship. On the other hand, Jackson retains the spirit of an intimate school that cares about its students. Dean Jim Levinsohn never said "no" to a lunch chat; in fact, he would often invite my class to his home for dinner. I still get LinkedIn messages and emails from Jackson staff to this day asking how I am doing and where in the world I am serving. That is what sets Jackson apart.