Wisconsin in Washington: Jessica Kosmider forges a career in foreign policy

Jessica Kosmider knew early on she wanted to pursue a career in foreign policy, declaring the major during her second week as a UW–Madison student. Selecting the major was the easy part, but making her dream a reality would be the challenge. Through educational opportunities, internships, mentors, and her own drive and willingness to explore and take risks, Kosmider has forged the experience and a reputation that has allowed her to contribute across several facets of U.S. foreign policy.

Where some students take several semesters to choose a major, Kosmider declared political science during her second week as a freshman, pursuing an interest she had since she was 16. She would eventually add two more majors, International Studies during her second year, and History right before graduating.

“UW–Madison has one of the best programs in the country for anything in the policy, political space. So, it felt like a very natural fit,” Kosmider said. “I got to have both the quintessential college experience and also pursue the policy interest that I was really keen to focus on. It was a very lucky experience.”

While taking foreign policy-focused classes at UW, Kosmider also participated in study abroad programs in Cape Town and Rome. In Rome, she studied Italian and art history. She chose the program in Cape Town to explore her interest in African history, as well as the opportunity to immerse herself in a new environment. It was during her time in Cape Town that she applied for a study away program, the Wisconsin in Washington, D.C. Internship Program.

The Wisconsin in Washington program is a domestic study abroad program that allows undergraduate students to intern for a semester in Washington, D.C. Beyond the required internship, participants complete coursework and attend lectures from experts, explore D.C., and build networks with professionals across various sectors.

With her goal to work in foreign policy, participating in the Wisconsin in Washington Program was a natural choice.

Kosmider recalled originally hoping to intern at the National Defense University, where a previous participant had served, but instead landed an internship at Freedom House—a non-profit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., that conducts advocacy and research on democracy, political freedom, equality and human rights, freedom of expression, U.S. leadership, and other issues.

It was a defining experience for Kosmider. While she originally wanted to work on defense and hard security issues, she greatly benefitted from the experience, gaining exposure to various issues and responsibilities, while creating connections that led to her next internship and future opportunities.

“[Freedom House] was where I was meant to go, and it was a wonderful experience,” Kosmider said. “I was on their external relations team and would help with gala planning and big events, work with board members, and also wrote articles. I am still close to the teammates who I interned for.”

Following graduation, Kosmider began an internship in D.C. at the Stimson Center, thanks to a connection made through an informational interview she had while participating in the Wisconsin in Washington Program. As that internship was ending, she connected with her former supervisor from Freedom House to consider her next steps and learned about an internship with the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), for which her former supervisor then recommended her. She was selected for the internship and was able to leverage that experience to land a position at Mercury Public Affairs, where she stayed for three years. During her time at Mercury, Kosmider had numerous opportunities to grow professionally, beginning as an associate and eventually promoted to director. She made close connections with leadership, finding yet another experienced mentor who has continued to help shape her career from one role to the next.

Kosmider said early relationships helped her to gain a footing in D.C. and find new opportunities. However, her talent for establishing these relationships was rooted in her genuine interest in the field and willingness to make contributions, no matter how small the task.

“They saw the effort I put into my work, and they were willing to vouch for me,” Kosmider said. “I was able to land an internship and that helped me land the job, and that helped me get to where I am now. These things help build off on another.”

Kosmider left Mercury to pursue her master’s in foreign service at Georgetown University. After graduating, Kosmider took a position with the Biden campaign, joining as an analyst before being promoted to team lead. This position led to more roles in government, including on the Biden-Harris Transition Team and in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) for Public Affairs. She was eventually selected for a role in the Department of State as assistant to the chief of staff.

“(Working for State Department Chief of Staff Suzy George) was like a master class on how to be a chief of staff,” Kosmider said. “In my mind a chief of staff is somebody who anticipates needs, puts out fires, and helps steer the entire office in a single direction. The way she did that for an entire department of 70,000 people is simply amazing.”

After spending over a year working alongside George, Kosmider was asked to return to the OSD as chief of staff for the Office of Assistant of the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs in the Department of Defense.

The role is fast-paced and can vary greatly from day to day beginning with a flurry of briefings, meetings with other leaders throughout the OSD, and identifying priorities. Kosmider and her colleagues will hold press briefings, monitor news developments, and then ensure that public affairs announcements and initiatives are implemented to plan and on schedule.

National defense may seem like a departure from Kosmider’s passion for diplomacy, but as she points out the two areas are intrinsically related, allowing her to explore additional aspects through the role.

“I really wanted to work in foreign policy, and defense is a huge aspect of that,” Kosmider said. “Not everybody understands the interconnection points between them, and it matters because you have to think about all of the different tools in your foreign policy toolkit, your national security toolkit, and the defense world. Our military support and assistance are part of that, and so this is another opportunity to dive deep on a very specific issue area.”

In thinking about the road that has led her to her current position, Kosmider has found that being open to opportunities and possibilities they might offer has been essential to her success. And this mindset could also benefit others who are looking to navigate their own paths in foreign policy and government.

“Don’t be afraid to take something that doesn’t automatically sound like the thing you want. At the time, I was very surprised that I enjoyed Freedom House as much as I did, but if I had not made that connection at Freedom House, I wouldn’t have gone to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and I wouldn’t have ended up at Mercury, and then I wouldn’t have met the boss and mentor who to this day is one of the most important people in my life,” Kosmider said. “So, approach opportunities with a positive attitude, and you might be pleasantly surprised.”