Early in her undergraduate career, Jackie Gibson set a goal: to one day work as a diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service. The Tulsa native earned a bachelor’s degree in international studies with three minors –Chinese, international security studies, and global energy, environment and resources – and then continued at CIS for her master’s in international studies (MAIS). Now in her final year of graduate school, Gibson is drawing closer to her goal: last fall, she began a Virtual Student Federal Service (VSFS) internship with the U.S. Department of State.
“I work for the European and Eurasian office in the Economics Department,” she explains. “My internship focuses on trilateral relations between the U.S., EU and China in regards to export controls on critical technologies, more specifically semiconductors. Basically, I research how U.S. export regulations have influenced China’s perception of certain European countries, or the EU as a whole, who go along with U.S. export controls, and how this relationship is playing out and developing conflict or competition.”
The Day-to-Day of a Virtual Internship
Gibson’s internship requires her to meet twice a week via Zoom with her coworkers in Economics (all based in Washington, D.C.), and she has regular one-on-one meetings with the head of the division of European and Eurasian Affairs. The department meetings allow Gibson to share the research she is conducting and to learn about issues others are tackling.
“It’s interesting because while I’m focused on this very niche aspect of European Affairs, there are people working on [issues like] climate change – critical minerals right now are a really big topic,” she says. “I get to stay up to date on everything that’s happening, which is really informative and cool. It’s great to be able to see how they operate and what to expect if you want to pursue a career in the State Department.”
Gibson admits that when she first learned of the opportunity, she wasn’t sure a virtual internship would be worthwhile. “One of my peers in the MAIS program was a virtual student intern for the State Department, and I wondered, ‘Is it worth your time, or is it one of those things where you can put it on your resume, but it doesn’t have much value?’ And she really recommended it. She said it’s just like doing a normal internship, except you have the ability to do it from anywhere, so it’s more accessible.”
The accessibility was key for Gibson, who had missed out on internship opportunities as an undergraduate due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She was hoping to find something she could complete simultaneously with her MAIS coursework at the University of Oklahoma – not an easy balancing act. She applied in July 2023, was selected and began in September.
Applying for the Internship
The application process, Gibson explains, is fairly simple and requires submitting an online application, resume and cover letter. Applicants are also asked to apply to the specific departments in which they’re interested in working, and there is a long list of areas. “They have so many different departments – from security issues to critical languages to basically everything,” she says. “And there are people from all different levels. You can be in your undergrad, your master’s…I think you can even be a Ph.D. student, as long as you are enrolled full-time.”
Academic and Professional Connections
While it may seem challenging to balance a research-based internship with a rigorous master’s program, Gibson explains that her work as an undergrad and grad student in the College of International Studies prepared her well for this role. She is also currently conducting research as a graduate research assistant for CIS Professor Bo Kong, and this work has overlapped directly with her State Department research.
“I have already worked on a lot of these very niche issues, so I was able to apply a lot of that knowledge. It goes hand in hand, and a lot of the work I did in my undergrad prepared me specifically for being able to conduct very high-level research,” she says. “For instance, I did my capstone with Dr. Kong on AI and the global order, and how AI will be influencing global power relations in the future. And then from there, I got a graduate assistantship working directly with him. So I would say the knowledge gained from the College of International Studies is very topical to what’s actually happening in the wider world, and it gives you a theoretical understanding of global issues.”
Currently, Gibson is working on a publication with Kong detailing why export controls have been ineffective in limiting China’s ability to access critical technology. “It’s exciting and scary,” she says of the process. “It’s very much related to the internship that I have with the State Department. They both inform each other, because as I’m doing the research for my publication I can share that with the State Department, and vice versa – things I learn at the State Department, I can bring into my meetings with Dr. Kong, and really help guide the direction that we’re moving in.”
Of course, the internship isn’t just about furthering research goals: it’s also designed to promote networking, helping students like Gibson pursue careers in diplomacy. “I’ll ask people for advice, and they’ll help me figure about what kind of opportunities are out there,” she explains.
In March, Gibson plans to participate in the College of International Studies’ “U.S. and the World” spring break trip to Washington, D.C., and she hopes to connect with some of her colleagues in person while in town. “I don’t know what I expected from the people in the office, but everyone is so overwhelmingly friendly and supportive. I was so nervous when I first started, like when I had my one-on-one meeting with the head of the office. But he was like, ‘This is great work that you’re doing.’ Even though you are virtual, it feels like you’re part of the office.”
Looking to the Future
Gibson will finish the internship and graduate from the MAIS program this spring. Post-graduation, her dream is to pursue a one-year master’s in diplomacy studies at the College of Europe in Belgium. Gibson had the chance to visit the College on a summer study abroad experience, which convinced her to apply. “A lot of people who end up working in EU institutions go to the College of Europe. So that’s kind of my next stepping-stone. I’d like to leverage the experience I’ve gotten working in EU relations at this internship and hopefully it will help me get a position at the College of Europe, where I’ll be very much connected to future bureaucrats who will be working with the European Union.”
Gibson’s solid academic foundation from the MAIS program combined with her internship have positioned her well to move into her chosen career. Her advice to other OU students interested in these fields is to take the leap and apply for an internship, knowing there’s nothing to lose and a lot to gain. “It's been a really rewarding experience so far,” she says, “and there are a lot of opportunities for networking.”
Interested in applying for the VSFS internship?
Visit https://careers.state.gov/interns-fellows/virtual-student-federal-service/ to learn more.
Want to learn more about careers in the Foreign Service and the U.S. Department of State? Connect with Shane Hough, Diplomat-in-Residence for the South Central Region. Hough’s job is to meet with students, discuss opportunities, and offer guidance. Learn more about the DIR and schedule a meeting.
Photo: Jackie Gibson poses while on study abroad in Belgium.