PAC Representative Ayesha Wharton recounts her personal journey to becoming a diplomat: “We put too much pressure on ourselves to figure everything out all at once or by a certain age,” she affirms.
Ayesha is the Counsellor at the Embassy of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago in Beijing.
Ayesha has spent the last six and a half years posted in China and has been in the Foreign Service for almost 14 years. But, before becoming a Diplomat, Ayesha worked in the field of Journalism.
In this interview with Ayesha, we discuss her transition to diplomacy. Including what the job has been like, and her advice for anyone interested in pursuing the career.
After graduating from McGill University with a B.A. in Political Science and Economics, Ayesha decided to focus on gaining relevant experience and mentorship over taking any job for the sole purpose of getting paid.
Her goal: to spend time getting acquainted with international organizations as an intern and speaking with anyone who would listen to her as she sought advice about her future.
“Mentorship taught me the value of seeking advice. It also taught me how to build a network that could support me as I progressed in my career.”
Like many of us, however; Ayesha was not always certain that diplomacy was the career she wanted to pursue.
Her passion for writing and connecting attracted her to the campus radio station while at university. This transcended into a career in radio and television before she entered diplomacy.
“At some point, you have to follow your bliss. Do whatever you feel passionate about, even if it has nothing to do with your field of academic study. It’s the perfect opportunity to discover the interests that ignite you and those that don’t.”
After three years in Media Ayesha decided it was time for something different.
“You are not obligated to stick to one path. If you choose a path today and at some point, you decide it no longer serves you, move forward. The lessons you learned and the skills you acquired will never be forgotten.”
And with that attitude, Ayesha did two unpaid internships in the Association of Caribbean States and the CARICOM Secretariat in an attempt to get more experience while waiting for an opportunity to enter the Foreign Service.
What it’s like working in the Foreign Services?
From an outsider’s perspective, it’s easy to glorify the role of being a Diplomat. Entering the system Ayesha was no exception to the rule.
Her initial motivation in going after the role was to help ‘change the world’. Before joining the Foreign Service, she imagined Diplomats did so by receiving clearly written instructions based on well researched and documented analysis fed to them by a network of handsomely paid and supportive staff.
She thought it was a cross between “Star Trek” and “the West Wing” where she could boldly go where no woman or man had gone before, while she gleaned clear and articulate policy directives from the political elite.
But, diplomats on the inside will tell you this is not always the case.
While acknowledging the high-profile nature of the job, Ayesha doesn’t make light of the workload and sacrifices involved in being a diplomat.
“Sometimes you have to learn to build and cultivate networks of support for yourself and by yourself. Sometimes implementing policy directives is not straightforward…” and in those cases, she explains you’re expected to be hands-on in filling in the gaps.
In terms of her grandeur dream of ‘changing the world’ Ayesha’s perspective has also changed.
“I no longer want to change the world. The only world I have power over is my own. I’ve come to realize that every act, no matter how small, has meaning and significance.
Ask yourself, what is the story that I tell myself about who I am, what I’m capable of, where I’m going and why? You have the power to create a new narrative governing your life story at any moment.
For my part, several moments in my career have given me a deep sense of fulfillment such as when I can witness lives being changed.
Representing a small island developing country is an honor and a privilege. I love being able to introduce Trinidad and Tobago to people who have never heard of the country, as is the case with many Chinese nationals.
My deepest joy also comes from when I interact with fellow nationals and can help in some way, from giving a small taste of home, to being part of a team that successfully negotiated a visa waiver agreement (in a different posting), etc.”
Advice for those wishing to enter diplomacy.
To fresh grads and others interested in entering the sector Ayesha quotes Nas ‘The world is yours’ she says. “Own it, claim it, and don’t beat yourself up if you have failed or are not where you think you should be in a few years.”
She views mistakes as the necessary steps in her journey to understanding her purpose, of which her career is but one manifestation.
In this regard, she reminds young professionals that it is important to know who they are, separate from any career. “Get to know yourself and set firm boundaries between your career and who you are.”
She also admonishes graduates and young professionals to learn how to grow a brand, be it branding for a nation, a company or personal branding.
She reiterates that understanding the dynamics of how to cultivate branding in today’s social media climate is essential. “Your network is your net worth, and reputation (not image) is everything!” she says.
Ayesha also draws attention to the value of institutional memory in the Foreign Service. “It is paramount and needed. Respect the institutional memory of those who have gone before you, even as you gather your own institutional memory bank.”
Finally from her perspective as a black woman in a male-dominated field, Ayesha says this,
“To the women who wish to enter this male-dominated field, if at any point you find yourself in a room where you are the only woman and the only person of color know that other women have opened the door for you to enter, and you may be currently opening a door for other women to follow, so do your best, because all these women are in that room supporting you.
Cultivate honest, open, genuine friendships with women in the field of diplomacy who can hold you accountable because these bonds will give you the strength, courage, and wisdom you need to thrive in a male-dominated arena.
To the men who wish to enter this male-dominated field, learn to hold space for the women you encounter, and to uplift and encourage those women who are your colleagues.
Seek to gather women as mentors and mentees to learn and appreciate their point of view. Remember having a diverse team with women who are in management is an asset to your organization.”
– Originally published on Thrive Beijing online magazine and written by Lisa Alleyne.