Alumna Works to Strengthen State’s International Alliances

four people standing in line: from left to right; Canadian Mountie, Katelyn Wilcox(alum), Lindsay Kirchinger (Katelyn's boss), Canadian Mountie

MSU alumna Katelyn Wilcox is the Assistant Chief of Protocol for the State of Michigan where she works to strengthen Michigan’s international alliances. She graduated from Michigan State University with a B.A. in French and a B.A. in Finance with an International Business specialization. On March 20, she will participate in an alumni networking discussion as part of the Careers in Language event hosted by the College of Arts & Letters’ Excel Network. Find out more about Wilcox, her time at MSU, and her career in the following Q&A. 

How long have you held your current position and what are the responsibilities of that position? 

I began my position in late August 2016 as the Assistant Chief of Protocol for the State of Michigan. The Protocol Office for the state is housed within the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC). In my role, I serve as a point of contact and manage relationships with key international alliances for the State of Michigan, including Michigan’s Consular Corps and various Consul Generals who represent foreign countries in the Midwest and the State of Michigan. Key responsibilities include assisting in the development and directing of gubernatorial trade and investment missions that support new foreign direct investment in Michigan and managing the coordination of international visitors and delegations that come to our state.

I also work closely with the events team at the MEDC to develop, plan, and strategize MEDC special events, conferences, trade shows, and receptions that support the MEDC’s overall organizational goal of attracting investment, talent, and economic growth to Michigan. Through close collaboration with MEDC’s events and business development teams as well as the offices of the Governor and Lieutenant Governor, I also support high-level diplomatic and economic activities with our state leadership. 

What is the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC)?

The Michigan Economic Development Corporation is the State of Michigan’s business development arm, working in collaboration with more than 100 economic development partners, to market Michigan as the place to do business, assist businesses in their growth strategies, and foster the growth of vibrant communities across the state. 

What does a typical day look like for you at the MEDC?

Each day looks very different for me at the MEDC as Michigan holds several key international relationships, including a very valuable and unique partnership with our neighbors to the north, Canada. We are blessed to hold several active Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) that allow Michigan businesses to enter numerous international markets on economic and research and development collaboration, including some in specific industries such as automotive, agriculture, and technology. Our international footprint is large, and we work daily to maintain communications with our international partners globally and here in the State of Michigan. A day could range from high-level meetings with diplomats visiting from foreign countries, to helping coordinate logistics for international delegations, to assisting in long-term planning of visits to targeted regions for business development throughout the globe.

a woman with long blonde hair wearing a striped shirt with a brown blazer standing in front of the Michigan State Capitol
Katelyn Wilcox at the Michigan State Capitol

What other positions did you hold prior to joining the MEDC?

Prior to joining the MEDC, I worked for the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., for nearly six years. I served in several different roles, including as a legislative assistant for both Congressman John Moolenaar and his predecessor, former Ways and Means Committee Chairman, Congressman Dave Camp. I supported several key legislative portfolios for Michigan’s 4th Congressional District, including trade and foreign affairs. I also worked in the Michigan Legislature during my time at Michigan State University, working as a page in both the Michigan House of Representatives and the Michigan Senate, before interning in several different legislative offices.

How has your French degree helped with your career?

I have always had a passion for foreign language education and discovered early on this was a talent worth pursuing. I studied French from an early age and continued my studies at MSU with a bachelor’s degree. I find that foreign language knowledge bridges cultural gaps and universally enhances communication to provide for more valuable engagement in relationship development. In each of my positions, I have been able to incorporate my French language skills. It can be something as simple as welcoming and meeting with visiting elected officials in French, to more advanced logistics coordination for our business trips with vendors in foreign markets. Language truly opens doors, and international partners appreciate the added effort to communicate in their language. A simple “bonjour, ca va” goes a long way. 

At the MEDC, my knowledge of French has been enormously beneficial, and I have used it on numerous occasions including business trips to Paris and Montreal. Francophiles around the world always appreciate the effort you make to study their language and understand their culture. As a Romance language, French has similarities to many other popular languages around the world and many of the words we use today have their roots in French. Of course, in Michigan, you can see French names in our cities, streets, and automobiles. French is a major language of arts, business, and government and students will benefit from learning it.

Why did you choose to come to MSU?

I fell in love with the MSU campus when I was in high school and loved the school and its global network. My uncle was an alumnus, and I wanted to be a part of the MSU family. “Go Green, Go White” unites alumni across the globe. I’ve encountered individuals from Shanghai to Silicon Valley who represent MSU!

Did you have any internships and/or study away or abroad programs that influenced your career?

My freshman orientation at MSU touted “it’s not a matter of when you’ll go, it’s where” and from that point on I was dead set on a study abroad program in France. During summer 2008, I studied abroad in Tours, France. It was the experience of a lifetime and my first time traveling internationally for more than a few days. What transpired was two months of intensive language immersion and study, with opportunities to learn about the history and culture of France while seeing what the country had to offer firsthand. I still remember this experience fondly, and without a doubt, it changed my life and led me to continue my pursuit of a career in the international arena.  

A key internship for me happened in the summer of 2009 in Washington, D.C., when I interned for Congressman Dave Camp. I learned more about federal policy, key legislative priorities for his district, and even did research for a publication that was distributed to Ways and Means Committee members during a hearing on health care policy. The internship also gave me an opportunity to meet and build a vast network of individuals in the Washington, D.C., area who specialized in international affairs, trade, and government relations for the State of Michigan. Many of the interns I met along the way have taken careers in federal government or government relations.  

In addition, there were several internships in the Michigan Legislature, when I was a student at MSU that helped guide my career. I had the honor of working for the Michigan legislature from 2005-2010, which helped shape my understanding of state government, policy, and how both intersect with the business community.

Why did you decide to take time out of your busy schedule to be part of the Careers in Language event at MSU?

I love language. I take every opportunity in every market I travel to learn keywords and phrases that will help me communicate better with my local contacts on the ground and demonstrate that I care and appreciate their culture. In my current role, I’ve traveled to China several times, and have worked with my colleagues to learn some of the language as well. I believe it’s important to communicate to language students that language isn’t restrictive, that it’s an opportunity to enhance any interaction in ANY career. Universally, people just want to be understood and respected – we all have the same goals – and it is my strong belief that foreign language skills are a vital tool that connects us all. 

What should students take advantage of while they attend MSU?

It’s never too early to take advantage of study abroad and internship opportunities. MSU has a lot of resources to make connections with individuals and alumni across the globe. Utilize those connections. Craft a plan and a path for yourself on where you want to be and use every resource available to you to build a network far and wide that can help you achieve it. I used every summer at MSU to intern, study abroad, or work. Take the time and use it wisely. 

What advice do you have for new graduates entering the workforce?

Follow the open door – you never know where it’s going to lead you. It’s okay to figure it out as you go along and that everyone reaches where they are through different channels and processes. You never know what one conversation or where one internship might lead you. Every experience is valuable, even the ones that are difficult and make you want to quit! 

Is there anything you’d like to add about MSU, your time on campus, or your career?

The French programs at MSU are incredible. I loved my classes, loved my professors, and felt like our French community was a family. Anne Violin-Wigent is fantastic and was so patient with me as I was trying to figure out the balance between studying French and studying Finance – vastly different focuses! The proximity of MSU to the state capitol gave me so many opportunities to work in government and understand the basics of diplomacy. If I could do it all over again, I would have studied abroad more frequently and earlier in my studies; it has made a significant impact on my life and my career. I am so proud to be a part of the MSU family, and love meeting Spartans internationally. We will always be connected by our alma mater!  

Note: the top photo shows Katelyn Wilcox (second from left) at a reception the Canadian Consulate held in Lansing to strengthen the relationship between Michigan and Canada.