Q&A with the U.S. Consulate General VSFS Interns

March 9, 2019

American study abroad students have played a significant role in updating and energizing the U.S. Consulate General in Florence’s online presence (@USCGFlorence on Facebook and Twitter).  This online rinascimento coincides with the Consulate joining the Virtual Student Federal Service (VSFS) e-internship program (VSFS.State.gov) with projects to research and design social media content , in particular in support of  the Consulate’s 2019 Bicentennial public diplomacy campaign “Insieme 200” (#Insieme200 or #Together200).  An e-internship is a flexible way for U.S. citizen students to develop their professional skills from their study abroad program or even their U.S. campus.


Though undergraduates are eligible, and have been selected in the past, this semester Consulate General Florence has two graduate student interns.  Caroline Lupetini is studying at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Bologna. Zachary Perconti is studying at the George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government in Arlington, Virginia. 


Ponte Amerigo asked Caroline and Zachary about their projects, their Italian roots, and their advice for fellow students.




Q: How did you find out about the Virtual Student Federal Service (VSFS) e-internship at U.S. Consulate General Florence, what made you interested, and what do you do exactly?


CAROLINE: I knew a bit about the program from my time at U.S. Embassy Rome, and had been following all of Mission Italy’s social media pages. It was actually from the #ApplyInJuly campaign on the Consulate General in Florence’s Facebook page that I remembered that the application for VSFS was due at the end of the month! I did a lot of research into the open positions for VSFS interns – it’s not just the State Department that has a VSFS program – and I settled on a few positions that best fit my interests, which were definitely using my Italian language, and engaging local communities through Public Diplomacy.


My current work focuses on creating engaging content for the Consulate’s many audiences: students (both Italians and Americans studying abroad), local Italians, American travelers, academics, politicians, and local businesses. We have weekly campaigns, like #FulbrightFriday and #TravelTuesday/#TravelThursday that get out the Consulate’s “news-you-can-use” messages to the public. I also get to work on other longer-term projects, like analyses of social media engagement, and special opportunities like the Ponte Amerigo blog!


ZACHARY: After a friend told me about her experience interning for a U.S. Embassy through VSFS, I decided to explore projects that were relevant to my public policy graduate program. The research position for the Consulate’s #Insieme200 Bicentennial Campaign was my first choice because I majored in history and worked closely with archival materials and I was excited about the opportunity to learn about public diplomacy.


In my role, I help piece together the 200-year history of the American Consulate in Florence. I dig through the National Archives and other sources then analyze and synthesize my findings for presentation by the Consulate.



Q. Caroline, you mentioned that you were already an in-person intern at the Public Affairs Section in U.S. Embassy Rome in summer 2017. How have you been able to build off of that experience as a virtual intern?


CAROLINE:  In Public Affairs at Embassy Rome, I did a few analysis projects where I tracked a theme across the Embassy’s posts on Facebook and Twitter. In this role at the Consulate General, I am actively developing the posts we are sharing, especially on Facebook. I search for great articles and pictures for each month and share the pictures I am taking during my year studying abroad at SAIS in Bologna. One of my favorite posts was putting together “Passport Bellezza” – pictures of my U.S. passport in front of famous sites and landmarks. I loved seeing my passport in front of the Fontana del Nettuno in Bologna on Facebook and in a student safety briefing!


Another of my favorite memories from this year was visiting the Consulate in November for a Mission Italy-wide meeting of the social media minds. I got to see my Embassy Rome colleagues again, and also give a short presentation about social media usage amongst young people. At this conference, I got some amazing points of view from the Italian interns and staff at the other American posts about how Italians use social media.



Q.  Zack, what have you learned about diplomacy that you could only find out by digging through the National Archives and what are some of your favorite stories so far?


The National Archives’ consular records hold mountains of material containing information largely unknown to the average Italian or American – for now. Throughout my time sifting through the documents, it has been unexpectedly interesting to examine visitor logs and expense reports to see what the day-to-day business of running a diplomatic post was like in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Consulate in Florence was created less than 50 years after American independence, and the difficulties our young nation faced in establishing its diplomatic presence overseas provide useful lessons in statecraft and international relations. I’ve also come across several interesting stories, such as the case of an American sailor caught up in a mutiny in Sardegna, visits to Italy by American notables, American reactions to Italian unification, and rumors of a Confederate warship destined for Italy’s shores. In the fall semester I did much of the “gathering.”  This semester Caroline and I are working together to put together material the Consulate can share with the public.    



Q. You both happen to be Italian-American. What have you learned about your own heritage through these projects?


CAROLINE: my paternal grandparents came to the United States in the early 1950s and met in an English class in Chicago, my hometown. I’m often reminded of their journey in learning English way back when by my continued use of Italian here in Bologna.  Even though I consider myself more or less fluent, I’m still working on colloquialisms and local lingo. I still challenge myself to use more of my Italian while doing this work.  For example, when researching African-American contributions in Italy, using even just a little Italian in an internet search can unlock fantastic articles that you would not find just looking in English.  Indeed, it’s my Italian American heritage that really first inspired my passion for Italian language, and a desire to connect with local Italians, which led me to my past and current internships with the State Department.


ZACHARY:  This project is highly relevant to my personal family history even though my ancestors mostly emigrated from the southern Italian peninsula and Sicily.  The Consuls in Naples and Palermo reported to the Consul General in Florence during the brief period that the city was the capital of Italy (The Firenze Capitale years of 1865 – 1871). My research has uncovered references to events my ancestors may have participated in or been aware of.  For example, Palermo renamed a major street in memory of Abraham Lincoln following his assassination, and many Italian citizens closely followed the American Civil War.  Florence and other cities also played host to a great many more American visitors than I expected, particularly in the 1820s and 1830s.  My research has taught me that Italy and America were far more closely linked than I had known in the years prior to the 1860s (a momentous decade for both countries) and has helped me realize not only their historical significance, but also the degree of exposure to and appreciation average Italians and Americans have had for one another over the past two centuries.



Q. What advice would you give to Americans studying abroad, in general, and particularly those who are considering applying to be a virtual intern (#ApplyInJuly)?


CAROLINE:   Check out if there is a program in your host city that connects local families to study abroad students. I have been connected with a local Bolognese family with a cute 8-year-old daughter, and we practice English and Italian together, make amazing food, and watch Carpool Karaoke, her favorite.


To those considering applying for VSFS: start your research on positions early! There are so many possible positions for almost every interest area, from tech to public diplomacy. Take a good amount of time to really comb through the options out there, to find a few that fit your interests. Start checking out the past projects of those interns, especially if it’s for a project like social media. When I was applying for this position, I went through the Consulate General’s Facebook and Twitter pages in detail, which definitely helped in my interview!


ZACHARY:  VSFS is a rewarding program that provides students opportunities to develop skills such as diplomacy and research – skills highly sought after by the Federal Government and other employers. However, the program also affords participants flexibility with remote projects that can fit into their otherwise busy schedules, as well as real-world experience in collaboration and organization because of the challenges of remote work. Even with that flexibility, make sure you have the time and interest to commit to a yearlong VSFS project. Remember, you will be responsible as part of a government team with deliverables that will be used and shared by government offices. For me, I value #Insieme200 because it keeps me engaged with American-Italian relations, has helped me practice my Italian language skills, and offers me the unique experience of working with our Foreign Service Officers posted abroad. I have especially enjoyed learning from mentors at the Department of State who have encouraged me to pursue international diplomacy and policy.

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