WHAT DO KENYA’S new constitution, Darfur’s genocide declaration, and Myanmar’s newest political party have in common? Wheaton alumni played a behind-the-scenes role in each event while working for the U.S. Department of State.
While many watched Kenya’s presidential election in August 2017 with bated breath, hoping that the East African nation would avoid the ethnic violence that marred its contested 2007 election, JONATHAN HOWARD ’00 closely followed developments for personal reasons. He spent two years as a missionary kid in Kenya and was posted to Nairobi for his first tour as a Foreign Service officer.
In Kenya, Howard worked with the ambassador to support a constitutional reform process intended to more equitably distribute political power. The new constitution was approved two days before he returned to Washington, D.C., in 2010. “To have worked so intensively in support of a document that was crucial for the future of Kenya, to avoid bloodshed and loss of life—it was a real blessing,” says Howard.
Howard's work in Nairobi was neither his first nor his last time wrestling with conflict. In 2004, he was sent to the border of Sudan’s Darfur region to investigate whether unfolding atrocities constituted genocide. The information his team collected led to a declaration that genocide was occurring, which inspired American churches to participate in advocacy and relief efforts.
“It was amazing to see how the results from one six-week project helped mobilize a massive official and volunteer response,” says Howard, currently director for African affairs on the White House’s National Security Council.
Elsewhere on the globe, ELEANOR NAGY ’86 served as Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. embassies in Macedonia and Myanmar (Burma) as those nations went through “a critical time of crisis and change.” The U.S. negotiated and preserved a peace treaty which “saved Macedonia from experiencing an all-out war,” says Nagy. Burma “underwent a profound transition” from four decades of military dictatorship to civilian rule, a transition for which Nagy had “a front row seat.”
“In both cases, the U.S. engagement was critical to the success of those efforts,” says Nagy, who currently works for the State Department Inspector General’s office improving the effectiveness of U.S. embassies and guarding against waste and fraud.
Many alumni have worked in the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF). AL GOMBIS ’90 served as team lead for the Middle East, helping to arrange the release of two dozen Indian Christians who had been arrested in Saudi Arabia for holding a church service in a private home. A couple of years later, some of the same Indian Christians were arrested again; and again, Gombis helped arrange their release.
“It just so happened that that Sunday was the annual International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church,” says Gombis, who currently serves in the Office of Security and Human Rights in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. “Ever since, these events have served as a reminder to me that God’s ultimately in control, he has the power to set the captives free, and his timing is amazing!”
Howard, Nagy, and Gombis are some of the many examples of Wheaton students who found ways to apply their interest in culture, language, or politics in the U.S. foreign service. Others include:
- PAUL YESKOO ’81 currently the acting deputy chief of mission in Côte d’Ivoire, has served for three decades as a management officer, helping embassies with logistics, IT, budget, medical, HR, and buildings. He has also worked with IRF and supported logistics during the Bosnian Peace talks.
- MEGHAN ODSLIV BRATKOVICH ’04, M.A. ’11 served with the Peace Corps in Romania for two years, teaching English to the first generation of teenagers to “grow up free of the shroud of communism.” She later served as an English Language Fellow in Indonesia.
- RANDY BRANDT ’89 interned for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then spent 12 years as a congressional staffer before being appointed to the State Department as senior advisor to the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom.
- DAVID FABRYCKY ’00 has worked as an economic officer in Qatar, as both a consular and political officer in Jordan, and as a Turkey policy officer in Washington, D.C.; covered internal politics in Iraq; and currently works on political-military issues in Germany.
As one of Wheaton’s longest-serving faculty members, Professor of Political Science DR. MARK AMSTUTZ has taught and inspired most of these alumni over his 45 years of teaching. Wheaton’s liberal arts education offers “excellent preparation for diplomatic service,” says Amstutz, because it “emphasizes moral principles, gives priority to global concerns, and nurtures cross-cultural perspectives.”
The Wheaton experience provided JUDD BIRDSALL ’05, M.A. ’06 —whoserved in the IRF office and the State Department’s Forum on Religion and Global Affairs—with “a solid intellectual grounding in history, political science, and religious studies; a passion for promoting justice and human dignity; and a wide network of well-connected and respected alumni.”
“In a world that seems increasingly polarized between nativists and globalists, Christians can be peacemakers who transcend the local-global divide,” says Birdsall. “We are part of local congregations and we want to steward our national citizenship, but we are also brothers and sisters in a global family of faith and we see all human beings as equally endowed with the image of God.”
“Diplomacy can be a cynical space,” says MATTHEW YARRINGTON ’96, M.A. ’98, a foreign service officer trained in economics and currently studying Arabic. Nevertheless, “Christians are always engaged in ‘foreign relations’ wherever we live in the world. We bring that surprising edge that cares about the other person and is genuinely interested their good.”
Gombis believes that “we need Christians engaging in the more difficult areas of international relations, such as arms export policy, intelligence policy, trade sanctions, and immigration policy.”
“These are difficult, sophisticated, intricate issues fraught with complicated ethical dilemmas and opposing views. Who better to take them on and wrestle with them than Wheaties?”
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