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by Brenda Brown Schoonover

Ambassador Schoonover, diplomat in residence at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, delivered these remarks as the keynote speaker at the annual banquet of the Joseph E. and Grace Needham Pogue Scholarship Foundation, February 12, 2001. The banquet took place at Chapel Hill, North Carolina.—Ed.

Good evening. I am delighted to be here this evening and to speak to this impressive group of Pogue finalists and Pogue scholars, our future leaders in America, and to advisors, friends, faculty, and administrators. I have been asked to speak about the “Merits of Public Service.” Of course, since I am a career diplomat, I will focus on public service on an international level, specifically the American Foreign Service.

Often when people—and I mean people of all age groups—learn that I am an ambassador and that I am a career Foreign Service officer, they look at me incredulously and ask questions such as:

“How did you get into that field? Why would you want to do a thing like that? Why would you want to live overseas away from your family and friends in a strange culture?”

One young man who worked for the moving company that moved our effects from Lomé, Togo, and from Washington to Chapel Hill said to me as he carried a heavy box into the house, “I heard you just came back from living in Africa and that you are an ambassador.” I responded yes, that was true. He looked at me quizzically and replied, “Man that sounds like fun. I need a job like that. How do you get a gig like that?”

For years, my brother, a senior executive with the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in Washington would ask when observing that my husband and I were off to yet another foreign assignment, “When are you going to settle down?” Years later, after he had put his three kids through college and was free to travel abroad, he visited us in Belgium and saw that our lives were pretty interesting. When he came to visit us in Lomé, I invited him to accompany me to a ceremony in which I inaugurated the opening of a school our embassy had sponsored under our Self-Help Program in the rural village of Tou Tou. The United States Government had contributed $10,000 for materials and the citizens of the village of Tou Tou had raised their own funds and used volunteer labor to construct the three-room schoolhouse. My brother became so enamored of the culture, the community’s dedication, and the spirit of the villagers that he went back to Washington, D.C., and convinced his church members to contribute funds to furnish desks and benches for the newly constructed school. He finally understood what my life as a Foreign Service officer was really like.

Let me start with a little background about how I came to be a Foreign Service officer. How did I decide on my career field and how did I get into the field?

A few months before graduating from college, I happened to see a documentary film about a program called “Teachers for East Africa” in which individuals could volunteer to go to East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania or Uganda) to teach English. Shortly after that I saw another documentary on the program “Crossroads Africa,” in which individuals, usually students, would go to various African countries as volunteers for a few months to teach or work on developmental projects. These two programs stirred my interest in doing some kind of volunteer work in Africa. About this time presidential candidate John F. Kennedy was outlining his platform and spoke of a new agency he envisioned. He would call it the Peace Corps. Young Americans would go to developing countries for two years and teach or work on programs to meet the needs of the country. John Kennedy the candidate and later John Kennedy the President promoted volunteerism, and this idea appealed to many of the youth of that time, including me. We all remember his famous line in his Inaugural Address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” And soon after Kennedy won the election and took office, he launched the Peace Corps. By early summer of his first year in office, the Peace Corps was established. The administration wasted no time in getting it off the ground. I signed up to take the Peace Corps examination as soon as I learned it was being given. Twelve hours later I had a telegram offering me a stint in the Peace Corps as a teacher of English as a second language and I accepted it. It wasn’t Africa, but it sounded interesting. For me the Peace Corps came along at just the right time, when I was young, full of a sense of adventure, enthusiastic, and idealistic. I am still all of those things—well, almost all. I was one of the first two hundred volunteers in the country to join the Peace Corps, the first of three to come from the state of Maryland, and one of the very few minority individuals in the program. It was a big deal and I loved it.

I have never regretted my decision to join the Peace Corps.

As a volunteer in the Philippines, I taught English as a second language and science in the rural town of Magarao on the island of Luzon. It was about a twelve-hour train ride from the capital, Manila. And what a train ride: a crowded boxcar with people, goats, and chickens. As a volunteer, when I had occasions to meet diplomats in Manila and on their visits to the province, I became aware of how U.S. missions abroad functioned. I had some dealing with officials from USAID and the United States Information Agency, who helped me in some of my development projects, such as establishing a community library and setting up a summer day camp.

A few years later when I was no longer a volunteer, I took a job as Associate Director of the Peace Corps in Tanzania. I finally made it to Africa. There I met Dick Schoonover, a career Foreign Service officer with the United States Information Agency. After finishing our tours in Tanzania, Dick and I were married and I accompanied him to Nigeria. From there we were assigned to Tunisia. It was becoming apparent that as the spouse of a Foreign Service officer, it would be pretty difficult for me to retain any kind of a consistent career as we traveled from post to post, with three-year assignments at each place, including Washington. I decided to join the Foreign Service because it was already in my blood. I was very much involved as a Foreign Service spouse. Joining it was one of the few options open to me abroad if my husband were to continue in the Service.

Joining the Foreign Service is another decision I have never regretted.

You might ask what is the Foreign Service and what does an embassy do? Why do we need embassies? The United States has accredited ambassadors, the President’s personal envoys, in the majority of the countries with which the United States has diplomatic relations. We maintain a physical presence in the form of an Embassy in more than 162 countries in the world. We are there to advocate and advance U.S. policies and interests and to report to Washington key political and economic developments in a country, particularly how they affect America interests. Our embassies and consulates (which are operations outside of the capital cities) also function to protect the welfare of U.S. citizens abroad and issue immigrant and non-immigrant visas under very strict guidelines to non-U.S. citizens who wish to immigrate to the United States or come to the U.S. to study, to transact business or as tourists.

I have had a wonderful and fulfilling career as a Foreign Service officer and I urge you to consider the Foreign Service as an option. Not every Foreign Service officer makes ambassador, in fact very few get to that top level, but that does not diminish the valuable experience you can have in serving your country abroad.

We need to have America’s best presented abroad, we need embassies that reflect the diversity of our population. If we truly believe in democracy and human rights, values so important to our own society, then it is worth promoting these concepts to other countries. The more we promote these ideals, the better are our chances of living in harmony and peace with other nations. We need to reinforce positive images of real Americans rather than just images of the United States portrayed by the media and the film industry. We need to have more people interested in working abroad for our country so that we have a better understanding of what the rest of the world is like, so that we listen and learn from other cultures. Never have I learned so much about myself and about my country as when I lived abroad and could see Americans and America from a distance. The first time I went to the Philippines and saw a world map different from those we see at home, I was surprised and disoriented when I noted that the United States was not in the center. I also learned that not everyone thinks we are wonderful and that there are some things about us not to love. On the other hand, there have been times when I have never been so proud of my country and so proud to be an American as when I am serving it abroad.

To be a Foreign Service officer, you can have majored in almost any field. Passing the exam is the first step, the written and then the oral assessment exam, plus the security background check. You can apply for the career cone you want to pursue: political, administrative, consular, public diplomacy or economic. Certainly you need organizational, reporting, and analytical skills and interpersonal skills. You need to be flexible, able to adapt to various cultures, alert, and willing to take on representational responsibility (official entertaining) and not be afraid to be in the limelight. You must be willing to work long hours and not mind being different. As a foreigner, in many countries, you have to be prepared to stand out. Your family may stand out as well. You may be in the minority and it may be very evident to everyone around you. You will be an official representative of your country and what you do reflects on your country. Even what you do privately is sometimes put into the context of your being an American diplomat.

Recommended Courses: In preparing for the Foreign Service, take courses that can help you pass the examination and be a good representative of your country. Become well versed in American history, culture, and government, world events and international affairs, and geography. Keeping up with the news by reading good newspapers and magazines is excellent preparation. Attend lectures on current affairs and key world issues.

Internships, which I highly recommend, are available with the State Department in Washington and in some of our embassies overseas. Once you are a sophomore, you can consider doing an internship with the State Department.

As stated, my last assignment overseas was the American ambassador to Togo, West Africa. I am a career Foreign Service officer and I have worked my way up through the system. About seventy percent of ambassadors are from the career ranks. Being a representative of my country, learning about my country, the world and our place in the world; travel, experience, respect for so many people, developing meaningful relationships with a variety of people, foreign and American—all these have been a continuous source of satisfaction for me. On the other hand, there are sources of frustration. For example, Americans in general are not sufficiently interested in the rest of the world and we are too often very arrogant. We sometimes think that we have it all. However, being citizens of a rich nation carries a special responsibility to the rest of the world, which is to continue to be world leaders and to continue to work for the development of all nations, both politically and economically.

Another source of frustration is the fact that U.S. missions abroad are always confronted with the issues of security. Never was that brought home to me more clearly than in August of 1998 when our embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, were the targets of terrorist bombings. We lost both American Foreign Service employees and Kenyans and Tanzanians who were U.S. Government employees in those terrible tragedies. All of our embassies were put on high alert. For security reasons, I actually closed my embassy three times in the months that followed those tragic events. I feel compelled to mention the security issue because as much as I want to promote the Foreign Service, I must also point out the risks involved. But in my opinion, the rewards outweigh the risks.

Why is it important that you consider the Foreign Service? Because it is important that you know that this unique and exciting opportunity to serve your country exists. When I was growing up, it was assumed that most graduating from college would be teachers. Teaching is a noble and honorable profession and certainly the need for good teachers is more acute now more than ever. But what I want to emphasize here is that the option of a career in the Foreign Service exists. Had I not gone overseas with the Peace Corps, I might never have embassies in operation and never have considered the Foreign Service as a career.

We need capable people to participate in the making and carrying out of American foreign policy—individuals who represent our country well—who can dispel the negative image that some cultures have of our society. Living abroad is a great way of educating oneself. The service requires that you learn a foreign language and the Department will actually teach you the language you need for your assignment and will usually teach your spouse as well. Not only will you broaden your horizons, but your children will grow up in an international environment. This is a serious “Study Abroad Program” folks.

In Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign affairs columnist Thomas L. Friedman’s excellent book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, he focuses on the theme of globalization. He uses the Lexus automobile and the olive tree as symbols of our post-cold war era. On the one side is the Lexus, the sleek high tech car made with great precision with the latest in technological advancement, made to go at high speeds. The other, the olive tree, Mr. Friedman refers to as a symbol of roots, identity, stability, family, and cultural tradition. The author makes a well-reasoned case of how we cannot ignore either dimension of the world we live in today—neither technology nor tradition. Foreign Service officers have to deal with globalization and the challenges and rapid changes that it will present to our own society and the world as a whole, including how we communicate across boundaries.

In a few days I will be giving a speech at the ROTC ball here on campus. In preparing my remarks, I was outlining the traits that I think the military and the diplomatic corps have in common. I listed:

a profound dedication for our country,

a commitment to service to our nation,

a desire to give it our best, and

an overriding patriotism.

In constructing this list, I began to realize that those traits are not exclusive to our two services. There are many Americans—and I hope most—who share those same values.

I call upon you to think about those values and how you can best put them to use for your country, for your own self-fulfillment and for your family.

I call upon you to consider a career in the Foreign Service as one option to making this world a better place for us all.

I recall many years ago when I returned from the Philippines as a Peace corps volunteer, I attended a talk given by the late Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who at that time was Senator Humphrey. He expressed his delight at talking to some of the first returned Peace Corps volunteers and told us how proud he was of us. He emphasized that as returned volunteers we had a great deal to share with our country. In his endearing folksy manner, he looked at us and said, “Don’t just go home and pull your chair up to the kitchen table and say, ‘please serve up the biscuits, Mama.’ Do something. Do something that will make a difference to your country and in the long run to yourselves and your family.”

I echo his words here to you today.End.

Brenda Brown Schoonover
Brenda Brown Schoonover

In 2000, Ambassador Brenda Brown Schoonover returned from Lomé, Togo, where she served for two and a half years as the American ambassador. During her Foreign Service career she has held a variety of administrative positions in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Tanzania, Belgium, and in the Department of State. She was born in Baltimore, Maryland. After completing her undergraduate studies at Morgan State University, Ms Schoonover began her overseas service and is considered a charter member of the Peace Corps.

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