SINSI Spotlight: Wagner Carries Lessons From the Middle East to the United Nations

Jun 20, 2016
Mel Policicchio
Woodrow Wilson School

During his studies at Princeton University, Will Wagner '12 MPA '14 traded his backpack for a briefcase, stepping outside his Master in Public Affairs (MPA) classroom studies at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, to dive deeper into the intense world of international studies. He spent the first year of this immersion with the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, followed by a second year as a fellow in the Political Section of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations (USUN) in New York.

Wagner was able to pursue this two-year experience thanks to the Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative (SINSI) at the Wilson School. Established in 2006, the SINSI graduate program combines a Wilson School MPA degree with professional-level practical work experience in the U.S. government, completed between the first and second year of the MPA program. SINSI scholars are placed in jobs within an executive branch, department or agency of the federal government through a fully-funded, two-year, full-time fellowship.

“SINSI provided a unique opportunity to prepare for a career in public service and get hands-on experience working on foreign policy for the federal government,” Wagner said. “There was simply no other program like it — one that combined an education in public policy with the chance to apply these skills toward issues that I was passionate about.”

From May 2011 until June 2012, Wagner worked on the Egypt desk in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. He analyzed Egypt’s internal political affairs and made corresponding recommendations about U.S. policy responses. Interestingly, his timing coincided with several revolutions in Egypt and its surrounding countries.

“It was an especially exciting moment to be working on our policy toward Egypt,” Wagner said. “I began the job just a few months after the Arab Spring began.”

In addition to following fast-moving political developments accompanying Egypt’s January 2011 revolution, Wagner also drafted strategies examining how the U.S. government should reorient its policies to best support the country’s political transition. During his time on the ground, Wagner also aided in research about Egypt’s political dynamics.

“During my year on the Egypt desk,” Wagner said, “I was selected for a five-week posting to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo to observe Egypt’s first parliamentary elections after the revolution, as well as travel to rural parts of the Nile Delta to research political dynamics outside the capital and build relationships with local leaders.”

After his time in Egypt, Wagner spent the second half of the two-year fellowship in New York as a fellow in the Political Section of USUN, where he supported the team covering Middle East issues at the U.N. Security Council. This allowed Wagner to gain experience in negotiating Security Council resolutions and preparing remarks for Council meetings. He immersed himself in the daily goings on of negotiating national security, even getting an inside look at the Secretary of State’s duties at the General Assembly.

“I was able to serve as part of the team organizing then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s meetings at the U.N. General Assembly, among many other challenging and rewarding professional experiences,” Wagner said. “I could not have imagined getting more substantive responsibility so early in my career.”

In addition to gaining valuable experience, Wagner quickly learned the importance of seeing issues from many different perspectives. 

“While I was learning to negotiate resolutions and other types of written products, there were frequently times when I disagreed with the views of the diplomatic counterparts from other countries,” he said. “Though I felt strongly about my position, I could not just force other Security Council members to accept it. Before I could identify possible compromises, I had to think about the issue from the perspective of my counterparts — trying to discern the basis for their opinions — and that would often allow us to find a way forward.” 

Taking these lessons back to the Wilson School after completing his fellowship, Wagner intensified his studies of the Near East. This path led him to a permanent position as a political adviser in USUN after receiving his MPA degree.

As a political adviser, Wagner drafts and negotiates products such as Security Council resolutions, advises the U.S. Permanent Representative Samantha Power and her deputies, builds relationships with other diplomats, leads preparations for Security Council meetings and works with the U.N. Secretariat to support the U.N.’s political mediation and peacekeeping operations.

Wagner credits his time in the two-year SINSI fellowship not only with providing incredible opportunities as a graduate student and for inspiring his career path, but also for giving him the opportunity — while still in graduate school — to learn the important professional lesson of concise yet effective writing.

“When I arrived in government, I saw how policymakers are constantly inundated with information, and so to be effective, I had to make sure to distill every issue down to its most important essence — something a senior official could understand at a glance,” Wagner said. “It was a tremendous shift from college and graduate school, where I had the luxury of being able to explore the nuances of an issue over 20 pages in term papers.” 

Wagner finds his job at USUN highly rewarding, offering him the opportunity to make a tangible global impact while tackling highly complex international challenges.

“I’m able to help consider how we can find common ground with other countries to deploy the tools at our disposal to resolve conflicts — everything from political mediation to humanitarian aid and peacekeeping operations,” Wagner said. “We’re able to see our efforts translated into Security Council outcomes that have a direct impact on matters of international peace and security. It’s a thrill to be a part of this process. I was interested in international relations for years, and SINSI showed me how I could turn my passion for the subject into a career.”