International Diplomacy: Alumnae/i in the Foreign Service

By Evan Weinberger '99

One day, soon after arriving in Niamey, Niger, to begin her posting as United States ambassador to the country, Jennifer Baswick Ward ’65 drove to the downtown neighborhood with her eight-year-old daughter Jacqueline. What stood out most to Jacqueline was the dust. “Mom, is this all there is?” she asked. Ward, who had previously been stationed in the comparatively bustling capital city of Kingston, Jamaica, laughed, “Yup. That’s all you’ve got.”

Niger, an impoverished West African country in the heart of the Sahel, the band of the Sahara stretching from West to Central Africa, is perhaps best known for disastrous famines. During Ward’s tenure as ambassador from 1991 to 1993, Niger was in the opening stages of a rocky transition from military to civilian rule. “It was a very exciting period to be there,” says Ward. “It was the best job I’d ever had.”

While her young daughter may not have understood the significance of being in Niger, Ward knew there was important work to do there. The American embassy “tried to do a number of things to help the democratization process,” she says, and American efforts focused on civil-society development, including building up women’s groups and training journalists. Important political changes took hold in the country, leading to the election of a president and parliament in 1993.

Ward, who had spent her time primarily in academia immediately after Vassar — she completed a doctorate in history at UCLA, taught at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn during its first hectic days, and was an administrator at Princeton for a time — says, “I had always wanted to join the diplomatic corps when I was younger.” In 1979, while serving as a congressional aide, she decided to leave behind Capitol Hill for the State Department, starting as a mid-level officer in the department’s Africa bureau, based in Washington.

A trailblazer in the U.S. Foreign Service, Ward was among the first women to serve in the Africa bureau. “I was pretty much always the first woman in the positions that I had,” she notes. Although women began serving in the 1920s, the State Department employed policies that kept them from advancing, including a mandate in place until 1972 that required women to resign their positions upon marriage.

Jennifer Ward '65
Jennifer Ward '65
Within two years Ward traded the comforts of Washington for Kinshasa, the steamy capital of what was then Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. She recalls her time there in the early 1980s as being “a fairly stable time in the history of the Congo.” The infamous dictator Mobutu Sese Seko (known for his leopard-skin hat — and the alleged looting of his country) was firmly in charge, a decade before the bloody civil war that left more than two million people dead from violence and disease.

After her time in Zaire, Ward was reassigned to State Department headquarters in Washington, DC, for a time and then moved to the embassy in Senegal, where she was deputy chief of mission, a position that made her second in command for the embassy. “It’s the hardest job in the Foreign Service,” she says. “You get to hear all the problems, you are supposed to fix them, mediate all the disputes, step in for the ambassador when he or she is not around, know everything going on in every section in the mission, and still be a good guy or gal.” Still, Ward looks back at her time in Senegal fondly. It was a welcoming country, and the embassy team did innovative work in developing Senegal’s civil society. It was also in Senegal that she adopted daughter Jacqueline from Brazil.

Beginning in 1993, and back in Washington, as deputy assistant secretary of state for personnel, Ward took on the task of restructuring the diplomatic corps, cutting budgets and increasing flexibility by restructuring Foreign Service assignments. The uncertainty, mandated budget cuts, and fear of change among officers made for an uncomfortable time. “It was a rather grim period,” she recalls.

After a tour helping retool the World Bank’s approach to Africa, “a great opportunity arose at Georgetown,” Ward says. “So, after 20 years in the Foreign Service, I decided to call it quits.” She returned to her roots in academia. Associate dean at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service since 1999, Ward enjoys using her vast experience from the field to provide direction for her students. She says, “I have a huge network to draw on across the world and have been able to benefit from my own experiences in counseling current Georgetown students about their careers.”

Laura Kennedy ’73 is another “modest pioneer,” as she calls herself, “in a career that was particularly unreceptive to women until recent decades.” She credits her father’s Navy experiences for her interest in public service, and Vassar Professor of Political Science Fred Bunnell’s freshman seminar on Indonesia for her interest in foreign affairs — which have united in her 30-plus years of work in the State Department.

But this career was far from a certainty for Kennedy. American foreign policy during her student days drove Kennedy away from the idea of working for the government. “The Vietnam War was not exactly an inducement to join the Foreign Service when I was participating in antiwar protests,” she says. After earning a master’s degree in international affairs, Kennedy, on a lark, took the Foreign Service exam — and passed. She joined the State Department in 1975.

First assigned to the China desk as U.S. relations opened up with the mainland, Kennedy served twice in Moscow; in Yerevan, Armenia, as charge d’affaires in the first U.S. mission there; and in the corridors of multilateral institutions in Vienna. Her highest position was deputy assistant secretary of state in the bureau of European and Eurasian affairs from 2004 to 2005, where she was responsible for coordinating diplomatic efforts in southern Europe, Central Asia, and the Caucasus region. When she first took the Foreign Service exam, Kennedy wasn’t necessarily expecting to make diplomacy her career. “I thought that if I didn’t like it I could always return to get my Ph.D., but I was hooked immediately,” she said.

Although Kennedy directed relief efforts for Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq following the first Gulf War, particularly delicate for her was her term as U.S. Ambassador to Turkmenistan from 2001 to 2003. From before the collapse of the Soviet Union until his death in December 2006, Saparmurat Niyazov ran the country as a dictator, anointing himself Turkmenbashi, or “Father of the Turkmen.” His actions as a ruler were most bizarre — renaming, for example, the months of the year after his relatives. Popular uprisings were curtailed by extreme political repression in the country. Kennedy called Niyazov’s rule “one of the world’s most repressive regimes.”

Kenya photo
Kenya photo
Her charge as ambassador was to secure U.S. interests — Turkmenistan serves as an aid transport and air corridor for the war in Afghanistan and also sits on massive energy reserves — while avoiding public support for Niyazov himself or his extremism. “There was always a balance to be sought between engagement to achieve important U.S. objectives without allowing that engagement to be used by Niyazov as any sort of even tacit support for his repressive domestic policies,” Kennedy says. While she worked to secure Turkmenistan’s cooperation, official American support went to civil-society groups.

In many ways, Kennedy’s political awakening came in protesting the war in Vietnam and opposing U.S. policy. She says walking the fine line between representing an administration and supporting it is common for Foreign Service officers. “While we are required to publicly support the policy of the administration in office, any good Foreign Service officer will vigorously put forward his or own views within the policy process,” Kennedy says.

One of a President of the United States’ duties is to select ambassadors. High-profile posts in some countries go to politically appointed ambassadors rather than to career Foreign Service officers. Benson Whitney ’82 was the executive director and finance chair for the 2004 Bush-Cheney Campaign in Minnesota. Because of his work with that campaign, Whitney was named ambassador to Norway in 2006, a post he still holds today. (Minnesota, he noted in a telephone interview from Oslo, “has a huge number of Norwegian-Americans.”)

Day to day, Whitney manages the 220-employee U.S. Embassy in Oslo, Norway, and studies issues like Darfur, Afghanistan, and AIDS policy, three points on which the United States and Norway collaborate. But public diplomacy also involves extensive media appearances and speaking to educational groups, Rotary clubs, and other civic organizations. “I spend a lot of time talking about what America does and why,” Whitney said. He helps Norway, a valued U.S. ally, particularly in the war in Afghanistan, understand America’s actions — even the ones with which Norwegians don’t agree. “The last five years have posed a serious challenge for us,” Whitney said. “One area where we could have done better is explaining how we tried to solve the issues we’ve confronted. Diplomacy is all about trying to engage in constructive dialogue with individuals and organizations.”

The detention center at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the continued U.S. military presence in Iraq have been among the many issues Whitney has been forced to confront when speaking with Norwegians who disagree with American policy. “We have suffered from not speaking with Norwegians, because the conversations happen without us,” he said.


Foreign Service Montage
Foreign Service Montage

Left to right: Ambassador Kennedy ’73 and the minister of culture of Turkmenistan piece together remnants of a mosaic from the Seit Jemmalatdin Mosque in Anau, Turkmenistan; Red Square, Moscow; Lofoten Lake, Norway; Agra, India; Benson Whitney ’82 has served as the U.S. ambassador to Norway since 2006; Grande Mosquee, Agadez, Niger

Diplomacy was new to Whitney when he presented his credentials to Norway’s King Harald V in January 2006. He finds the work intense and rewarding — not the golf dates and glad-handing his friends may have expected. “It’s actually much more meaningful and much more substantive than that,” Whitney said.

Like Whitney, other Vassar alumnae/i are relative newcomers to the world of diplomacy. Each hopes to use his or her position in the Foreign Service to effect change and promote understanding and communication in the international arena. For Partha Mazumdar ’91 it was the events of September 11, 2001, that stirred him to join the Foreign Service. Mazumdar was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania that day. Like so many before him, he wanted to answer the call of his country in its time of need. He didn’t think he’d be much of a soldier, so he joined the State Department.

His first assignment was in the U.S. consulate in Peshawar, Pakistan. “It was extraordinary,” he says. “I wanted to do important work, and from day one I was there organizing the out-of-country Afghan election monitoring.” Mazumdar says he was able to bring the local Pashtun tribes a fuller picture of America than they had.

After his year in Peshawar, Mazumdar spent two years in London working on trade issues and European Union policy. He recently started up a three-year post in Washington as an aide to Ambassador Richard Boucher, the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs.

There’s also Liv Kilpatrick ’00, who, after completing her international studies degree from Vassar and an M.B.A. from the Instituto de Empresa in Madrid, Spain, was looking for a way to live abroad and do meaningful work. “A job where every two to three years I get to move to a new country and possibly work in a new position seemed like a perfect fit,” Kilpatrick says. She reckoned the Foreign Service would allow this, so she applied and was accepted in 2006.

Now a consular officer at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel,Kilpatrick sits behind a pane of bulletproof glass to receive documents for those seeking visas to the United States. On an average day she interviews about 130 people in four hours. Sometimes monotonous, the work has given Kilpatrick a feel for a true cross-section of Israeli society. “I interview government officials, retired grandparents wanting to take an Alaskan cruise, large families traveling to Disney World to celebrate Bar Mitzvahs, and Intel employees relocating to my hometown of Portland, Oregon,” Kilpatrick says. It’s certainly not the usual path for those with M.B.A.s; but for those interested in the meaningful work the Foreign Service can offer, it’s just the place to get started.

Weinberger is a journalist based in New York. He has written from Africa, Cambodia, and New York for the Dallas Morning News, the Catholic News Service, the Phnom Penh Post, and other publications.