Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

From College Hill to Foggy Bottom

Reflections and Advice from Alumni in Foreign Service

“Every interaction is an opportunity for diplomacy.” This was just one bit of advice offered during a recent half-day gathering, “From College Hill to Foggy Bottom: Reflections and Advice from Alumni in Foreign Service.”

Returning to campus for the session, which included a panel discussion and a series of smaller workshops, were: Dr. David Gehrenbeck ’00, Ambassador Rodney Moore ’86, Ambassador Stephanie Sanders Sullivan ’80, and Ambassador Stuart Symington ’74.  Students interested in learning more about careers in US foreign policy and diplomacy listened intently as the panelists reflected on their lives at and after Brown.

Ambassador Symington, currently the US Special Representative to the Central African Republic, recalled being told by a French professor that he didn’t have the necessary skills to master foreign languages.  It’s a good thing he didn’t listen: since then, he has served high profile diplomatic positions in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, all of which have required advanced language skills. That being said, he cautioned students, to be realistic. “If you’ve been studying Russian an entire semester and still don’t know the Cyrillic Alphabet,” he joked, “drop it.”  He characterized diplomacy as “turning the world into your mentor, student and classmate one interaction at a time,” and urged students to ask and listen

During post-panel topical sessions with students, Ambassador Moore noted that the only supervisory position he had held prior to becoming a Foreign Service Officer was as a dining services worker at the Ratty, where he was in charge of three other students. Almost a decade younger than most of his State Department peers, he learned quickly how to lead others.  He credited opportunities provided by Brown as being instrumental in preparing and guiding him toward a career in the State Department, helping gain admittance to the Foreign Service, and ultimately determining his assignments, which allowed him to rise to senior positions in the Balkans.

When asked about her experience as a female diplomat, Ambassador Sullivan, drew from her experience as Ambassador to the Republic of Congo.  She said that while there are unique challenges related to balancing one’s career with family life, women who are truly passionate about careers in diplomacy find ways to overcome them. She added that being a female has its advantages, and added that, in the field generally, “Humor goes a long way.”

Dr. David Gehrenbeck, former research assistant at the Watson Institute while obtaining his PhD in Russian Literature, recalled advice from former director Mark Garrison and other professors who helped lead him to an internship in the Moscow embassy, and ultimately to the Foreign Service.   A broad liberal arts education with strong communications and cross-cultural skills is good preparation for diplomacy but not sufficient; experience is important and internships are also useful.           

Upperclassmen and underclassmen alike appreciated the advice and perspectives offered by the panelists.  For Liu Yi ’15, who is considering a career in foreign policy, “interacting with these senior diplomats offered insights into the challenges and rewards of a career in the Foreign Service.”  Freshman Abby Borges, who is already considering a career in the State Department, said, “the speakers’ stories and advice allowed me to affirm my aspirations,” adding that, “events like this help Brown undergraduates like me explore their future prospects.”

The day of panel session and workshops concluded with a campus-wide screening of the HBO documentary film, “The Diplomat,” chronicling the life and legacy of the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, a 1962 graduate of Brown, and directed by his son, David Holbrooke. Underscoring what had become evident throughout the day, in her introduction, Brown University President Christina Paxson noted Brown’s long tradition of educating leaders who pursue the field of diplomacy. “At present, there are two Brown alumna serving as Assistant Secretary; Roberta Jacobson, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs; and Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs.  And no fewer than four Brown alumni served as Secretary of State: William L. Marcy, Richard Olney, John Hay, and Charles Evans Hughes.” She went on to note that had his life not been cut short, Holbrooke may very well have been the fifth.

Given the interest among current students at Brown, it appears this tradition will likely continue.

-Miriam Hinthorn ‘16

Watch webcast of event