Engaging Practitioners: former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights, Sarah Sewall

May 19th, 2018

By Anna Ronell

On May 2, 2018, Dr. Sarah Sewall, former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights, was hosted by the Center for Strategic Studies (CSS) as the last speaker in the Engaging Practitioners series this academic year. She spoke candidly with CSS fellows, Fletcher MALD students, and Tufts undergraduates about her career, successes and failures, and difficult choices she has made over the years. Sewall described a career without a predefined trajectory but instead guided by practical factors, including good luck and serendipity, and unexpected opportunities. Balancing career and family life is a particular challenge, she said, especially for women in the field.

Sewall describes herself as problem-driven, rather than career-driven; her choices were often informed by a particular problem in need of an innovative solution, which led to a career move that allowed her to confront the challenge and grow professionally. Sewall started off in the defense world, focusing on the militarization of space and writing her undergraduate thesis on anti-satellite weapons. She did her graduate work at Oxford, planning to work on development in Africa. She ended up working for Senator George Mitchell (D-Maine) as his Senior Foreign Policy Advisor in 1987, engaging on issues as distant from her original plans as the Khmer Rouge regime, attempting to find bi-partisan consensus in Congress.

Sewall also discussed skills essential for a transition from academia to policy. The two key competencies of people who are successful in both policy and academia are clear communication skills and relationship-building/networking skills. The Academy teaches scholars a mode of discourse that can be alienating, with jargon and pretense getting in the way of explanation. The ability to communicate clearly and succinctly is essential to succeed in policy. It is also very important to form personal relationships and to maintain a network of colleagues who may welcome new ideas and projects. This can be extended to building trust and looking across silos to find synergies and opportunities.

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