Foreign Service Career: Reva Gupta at the State Department

by Ted Jou '99

After graduating from Blair, Reva Gupta ’91 went to the University of Maryland, where she turned towards the liberal arts to challenge herself in developing a skill set different from the focus of the Magnet. During the 1992 Presidential campaign, she remembers being inspired by President Clinton’s call to service, and after graduating with a degree in English Literature, she joined AmeriCorps in Chicago, working for the I Have a Dream Foundation, an afterschool program for at-risk youth.After her year in AmeriCorps, Gupta found a job directing the policy program at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. She worked as a lobbyist for legislation affecting immigrants, and once when her Executive Director arranged a meeting with representatives from the Illinois Legislative Latino Caucus and the Legislative Black Caucus, she found herself at dinner with an up-and-coming state senator named Barack Obama. Later in their careers, they would both find themselves in the White House, but through slightly different paths.

Gupta continued to work in the immigrant rights movement for almost a decade, with stints on Capitol Hill, doing grassroots and community organizing, and reaching out to activists in the womens’ rights and labor rights movement. She considered law school or graduate school, but when her sister and brother-in-law signed up to take the Foreign Service Officer Test, Gupta also decided to take it “on a whim.” The thought of the Foreign Service “triggered a memory” from her youth when she had dreamed of serving abroad.

Although it is common for Foreign Service applicants to take the test multiple times before passing, Gupta passed the written and oral exam on her first try. She remembers that among her group taking the oral test, there was another woman who wasn’t completely sure about a career in the Foreign Service, “and it was the two of us who passed!” Gupta had to make a quick decision on whether to leave her career in the immigrant rights movement to join an orientation class at the State Department. She chose the Foreign Service.

Working for the State Department, Gupta has been assigned to posts abroad in India (New Delhi) and in Mexico (Mexico City). Back in the United States, she was assigned to the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, working on international reproductive rights policy, and in the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, facilitating professional exchanges with South Asian countries, focusing on India and Bhutan.

One of the highlights of Gupta’s Foreign Service career happened in India, when she was covering Tibetan refugee issues. During a meeting with representatives of the Tibetan government in exile, she mentioned that she was planning a vacation with a few friends in Ladakh, in northern India. They told her that the Dalai Lama would be there around the same time visiting a Tibetan refugee camp, and she asked them to let her know if he would be holding a public event. To her surprise, after returning to her hotel after a rafting trip, a hotel employee ran up to her saying, “He’s been calling!” The “he” was His Holiness, and Gupta’s group was invited to a meeting that afternoon. Unfortunately, they had only brought casual clothing for hiking, so they frantically ran around town trying to find new clothes before the meeting. Gupta remembers still feeling severely underdressed, but “it was an incredible moment.” The Dalai Lama sat with them for 45 minutes, and hearing his perspective was “very impactful and very enlightening.” That was one of a few moments in her career when Gupta found herself thinking, “pinch me – is this really happening?”

Currently, Gupta is working on a detail with the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (WHIAAPI), where she focuses on immigration issues, returning to some of the same type of work she did before the foreign service. Since she joined WHIAAPI in September, Gupta has been the policy lead on immigration, working with the White House Task Force on New Americans and just generally trying to get as much done as possible in the last year of the President’s administration. When her detail ends, Gupta will return to the State Department where her next assignment will focus on labor and human rights issues in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

As Gupta looks back on her career, she says that “I have been lucky; I have been very fortunate.” From AmeriCorps to lobbying and community organizing, and now as a diplomat and a political officer, she has been able to build on her experiences and draw on different aspects of her past work without necessarily having a clear plan in mind for what might come next. Although she doesn’t remember much of the math, science, or computer science she learned at Blair, she is thankful for the foundation she got from the Magnet. Foreign service officers are generalists who are “expected to learn anything very quickly,” and that is a skill she was able to learn early in life.