By Harold L. Eckett, Rider University
Growing up in Lawrence Township, Daniel Mejia served as the neighborhood paperboy, delivering to his neighbors the local newspaper and the stories of overseas intrigue printed on its pages.
Now, in his role as a foreign diplomat for the U.S. government, he’s actually living out those stories – and it’s the job he always dreamed of having as an adult.
Mejia, 28, returned to his hometown last Thursday (Oct. 18) to visit Lawrence High School, sharing stories about his career with the U.S. Department of State with juniors and seniors from the school’s Academy of Arts & Humanities and explain to them what skills are needed to live and work overseas.
Born in Princeton and raised in Lawrence, Mejia graduated from Lawrence High School as valedictorian in 2003 before taking on an internship opportunity in New Jersey’s 12th Congressional District with U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-Hopewell Township) and obtaining his bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard University in 2007.
Since August 2010, Mejia has been working in the Political Section at Embassy Jakarta, Indonesia.
“As a diplomat, I am kind of like a journalist for the U.S. government,” Mejia told the students. “My job is to collect scoops or to collect good information, sometimes classified, and send it back to Washington.”
Mejia, who speaks Mandarin Chinese and Spanish, has lived and worked in South Korea and Ecuador. Prior to joining the State Department, he lived in China, where he was an English language lecturer at Beijing Language and Culture University and a teacher at Princeton Review’s Beijing office while at the same time perfecting his Chinese as a student through the Harvard-China Fellowship.
Mejia provided students an overview of his responsibilities in Indonesia.
“It’s my job, as a U.S. diplomat, to basically talk to people from all over society,” he said. “To understand what the people are saying about possible U.S. actions in Libya and to make recommendations back to Washington.”
That advice, he explained, is relayed back to his superiors in Washington via confidential messages known as diplomatic cables.
Not all assignments have gone smoothly, Mejia confessed, noting that “sometimes diplomacy works and sometimes it doesn’t.” He told the story of one less-than-successful mission he experienced in Jakarta.
“I went into the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jakarta and said ‘Can you go against the resolution that supports Palestinian statehood in the U.N.?’” he said. “I got laughed out of the office because, of course, they are going to support Palestine. It’s their Muslim brother.
“Sometimes the foreign policies are effective and sometimes they’re not.”
Working overseas and traveling to many different countries, Mejia has honed his language skills. There is a great demand for diplomats who speak Mandarin and other languages such as Arabic, Kazakh and Russian, he told students.
One upcoming assignment for Mejia will be, in April, to conduct interviews in Beijing with people seeking visas to the United States. The interviews, about 120 per day, will each last just 60 to 90 seconds. He said he will have to serve as a “human lie detector.”
Mejia has accompanied President Obama on a few of his overseas excursions. One notable trip, he related, was to Bali, Indonesia, with the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He said he felt in awe when Obama winked at him from across the hall.
Mejia urged the students to strive to learn and challenge themselves while in school. He also encouraged them to think about seeking out internships that will support their future career goals.
“Being a diplomat is cool,” he said in a mirthful tone. “So you should all consider it.”
In conclusion, he told the students: “Study hard, read the New York Times, do lots of extracurricular activities, and good luck with everything.”