Aurelia Brazeal
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Ambassador Aurelia Brazeal

U.S. Department of State

Ambassador Aurelia E. Brazeal currently serves as President of the Association of Black American Ambassadors (ABAA) and The Senior Seminar Alumni Association (SSAA). She retired as a career member of the U.S. Senior Foreign Service in December 2008, having served as Distinguished Visiting Ambassador from 2007-2008 and as Diplomat-in-Residence from 2005 – 2007 both at Howard University, Washington, DC.  She was U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia, 2002-2005.  She was Dean of the Senior Seminar, 1998-2002, and the first Dean of the new Leadership and Management School at the Foreign Service Institute, 1999-2002.


What experience did you have in your academic career, or experiences that attracted you to international affairs, and as well as the Foreign Service?


My first exposure overseas actually came when I was quite young, when my parents took us, my sister, and myself overseas for family vacation. Later, I attended summer camp in Puerto Rico, which is part of the U.S. but still had students from all over Latin America who came to participate. I was very impressed with the students from Latin America and how they would stand in front of the group and say: "As a future leader of my country I'm here to tell you..." Whatever it is they wanted to talk about at that moment.

I remember sitting there thinking to myself that I would not even consider saying that I'm a future leader the United States. This is still back in the early '60's, when we had segregation, as well as upheavals in terms of trying to get equal rights, particularly in the South where I lived. And so I said to myself, "What makes these people tick? What makes these Latin American students at that age believe that they're a future leader of their country?"  With this question on my mind, I became very interested in the culture in Latin America.

From there, I think the idea sort of settled into my subconscious. So that by the time I got to college I was most interested in programs that would lead me overseas. I participated in the international visitors exchange program where you'd go to different countries and stay with the families. Through this program, I went to Sweden and lived with a family for about 6 weeks in the summer. Still, questions over those Latin American students remained with me throughout my time abroad and was a driving force to me eventually having a sub-specialty in my graduate degree in Latin American studies.  These experiences expressly started my interest in the Foreign Service or working with the U.S. government in some form or fashion in the international affairs arena.


Why do you think it's important for students from diverse backgrounds to have international experiences from an early age?


I have to speak from my own experience as an African American.  Most African Americans seemingly do not see a connection between what they're going through in the United States, foreign policy, and what is happening overseas.

They just don't put those pieces together in a way that connects the dots. And I think it's important that people have an experience, particularly in high school and college, that exposes them to how other people are living in the world, and they can connect the dots back to perhaps their own experiences in the United States.

By connecting the dots, I'm talking about for example in 1963, I was still in college then, as Secretary of State Dean Rusk testified before the congress on the civil rights bill that ultimately was passed in 1964.  Having a Secretary of State testify on a domestic piece of legislation was most unusual. But the connection was there in terms of African countries beginning to get their independence from their colonial powers and the fact that Africans were increasingly traveling to the United States and being subjected to treatment as if they were domestic African Americans. Or, as we were known at that time, Negroes.

The Secretary of State had a say in that legislation, because what was happening to those foreign officials affected the United States image in the world, the Soviet Union was using our system of segregation and the lack of rights for African Americans as a propaganda tool, and so there were connections between the freedom of African countries, the treatment of African diplomats, the Soviet use of propaganda, and the fact that there were also domestic efforts to gain civil rights.

Most people haven't put those dots together. They're other linkages that should be made, but are too lengthy for me to go into right now. But, just if African American students can understand how that helped, that those events overseas were helping us gain our civil rights in the United States, I think that shows the connectivity between foreign policy, domestic policy and our daily life.


Do you think that HBCU’s can use internationalization initiatives to attract more students?


Yes for educators, particularly HBCU's, it's imperative that we internationalize our curriculum and our student bodies as much as possible. It's the only way for us to remain competitive in a globalized economy and a globalized world.

Most minority students in the United States -- not just African Americans, but Hispanics and others -- are also infected by what I call the “American View” of the world: that somehow we're the norm, and everything else that happens in the world is therefore not worthy of their attention.

Many of the HBCU campuses have students from other countries; from Africa, from the Caribbean in particular. And yet those students are expected to fit into the overall culture of the HBCU campus, and they're not singled out as a group from which the domestic African Americans can learn something about the culture and viewpoint of other students. 

Three approaches come to mind that all HBCU’s can utilize:

  1. I would like to see more HBCU's having an international day where they ask the foreign students to wear something from their country and cook some food from their country. Don't have them speak about their governmental structure, or their economy, or what's important socially, rather allow them to celebrate their country in the context they choose. We should be exploiting the connection and the diversity that we find already on our campuses, and then we should be increasing that diversity and internationalizing the curriculum.
  2. In my view, we should require all freshmen coming to HBCU's to get a passport. And just the very act of getting a passport, even if you never use it, is sort of liberating and gets them thinking about the world beyond our shores. They should have a passport and therefore be ready to travel. They should have some international experience before they graduate. And it should be a requirement of graduation that they have this experience. It can be rolled into the curriculum over time. There should be courses that study the African Diaspora with an abroad component attached to it.
  3. Most importantly, our faculty need to also travel abroad and have an opportunity to see the world. If they don't it's very difficult for them to encourage students to travel. 


Do you think that African destinations and Diaspora studies programs should be the primary focus of HBCU’s and their students?


I think that our students should go around the world, not just Africa, but I think that having an exposure to Africa early on in your life can help ground you intellectually and emotionally in a way that perhaps doesn't happen when you travel to other parts of the world that don't have an obvious Diaspora connection.

The African continent as a whole is huge and important. Its has over 50 countries and countless riches of the world that other countries want, including China.  China's trying to lock in long-term contracts of access to raw materials in Africa that they need to keep their economy growing. I understand the importance of our students going to China and studying Chinese, I think that is important.  However, I think going to Africa would be helpful particularly for African Americans.

I think it helps clear away some of the stereotypes that both sides are working off of in the domestic context, both meaning African Americans as well as Africans from Africa. The Africans are sort of living in their own communities and African Americans may be around them but there isn't a lot of mixing due to perceptions of the other held by each group.

Overall, I do think that we have to be worldwide available, so to speak, and therefore we should go to China, Japan, India, Brazil,  and other places that are increasingly important. There's just a lot to be said by having an experience with Africa for African Americans that would help them see the rest of the world in a more complex way.


Do you think it would be helpful if Africa was viewed not necessarily just from the cultural standpoint for African Americans, but also from the standpoint of Africa playing a more strategic role in world affairs?


Absolutely. And Africa should be looked at strategically.  It's going to be increasingly important and I think that we need to tie the Diaspora together more.  

I have found that this is happening with other Diasporas, for instance the India diaspora.  The Indian community in the United States has set up a kind of Peace Corps type of operation, where they get American Indian graduates from university to go back to India for a couple years to work on different developmental items.  I believe they even have elements for retired Indians in America to go back to India to help transfer resources, intellectual capital, and that kind of thing.

I believe the same can/should be done with the African Diaspora.  One way to do that might be for newly minted African American Phd's to go to Africa and teach for two to five years before they come back to the states and start their career.  This would help us develop closer ties as a community.  It’s a way for ordinary people to get to Africa to do something, some real interchange.


How important is the length of the program abroad for student success and development?


Even if students are going overseas to participate in a two-week program, at least they've been exposed a bit, and maybe they have some language exposure beforehand that can be enhanced.  I believe that they need to go abroad for whatever amount of time that works for them.  However, I have met students who have been on year-long programs of study abroad. Those students, to me, seemed to have the language facility needed to operate in that culture along with a greater cultural understanding and sensitivity for the culture.

These students were able to think more about issues in a more complex way, because they had dialoged with people who see issues differently than just the American View, and therefore they’re exposed to different approaches to doing the same thing. I think they had, if they were attending a rigorous school, a better knowledge of global affairs then students who stayed for shorter periods of time.

How can students -- especially students of color -- best utilize their international experience, as well as study, intern, volunteer abroad opportunities, to prepare for their future career?

Five ways immediately come to mind:

  1. They can return and help garner support at the student level for the internalization of their curriculum. In doing so, they can do an individual study project in some course that would allow them to integrate their experience overseas with what they’re studying and their degree program.
  2. They should seek out professors who can help them look at their experience from different angles and reveal the broad value of the experience.   Reflecting in this way will help them become more comfortable in the future working in circumstances where they're outnumbered and seen as a minority while also developing their oral communication skills.
  3. Teaching overseas is also very valuable. For example, there's a JET program in Japan where they bring Americans to teach English in their schools around Japan.  There are other teaching programs around them world that students can take advantage of.
  4. Another great opportunity can be found with the Peace Corps.  The Peace Corps is an excellent experience for students.  Currently, they are looking for more diverse applicants and what students should know is that if you look on their Web site they have agreements with some universities in the United States to the effect that if you're willing to have one year of classroom study for your master's, and then your two year Peace Corps experience, at the end of that 3 years you come out with a master's degree. I think that makes a lot of sense for people, especially those who are looking to build on their study abroad.
  5. Internships are really valuable to follow up after you've had a study abroad experience. Especially internships overseas because they give you actual work experience in another country. I certainly know the internship program with the State Department for example, which I'm most familiar.  Our interns are given real work to do.  Our embassy interns see how American diplomats work overseas. That is a valuable program, because interns get a security clearance up to level secret, and I try to tell students that just getting a security clearance, even if you're not selected as an intern is very valuable to employers.  It is by itself worth a lot of money in the future, because a security clearance from the U.S. Government indicates to employers that you could probably get another one if they are going to have you work in an area where that's required. An internship experience pulls together various strands of what people have learned during study abroad.


How do you think State and other government organizations can work with HBCU’s to ultimately attract participants from diverse ethnic, academic and economic backgrounds?


Well the State Department has what we call Diplomats in Residence. Around the United States there are usually about 15 to 17 of these people scattered at different universities and colleges in the country. They have a geographic region that they're supposed to cover, and they can visit the different schools in that geographic region to try to get people informed about internship programs, taking the foreign service exam, helping students with their application process, talking to people about the Foreign Service, and so those people can be accessed.  I know other organizations send out people to career fairs and colleges to pass out information, but the Diplomats in Residence are at the schools. 


How have your diverse international experiences impact your life personally and professionally?


Once I started to get international experience, I think my family and friends were more willing to venture out into the world. I have met many people who simply do not think beyond staying in their local state or community. But once they get that first experience, it changes their perception.  I know it did for me.

As a career diplomat, my experiences prepared me to work in many areas by giving me a sense of integrity. I learned critical skills in areas such as negotiating.  Just negotiating my way to some agreement as opposed to standoff, also developed my cultural sensitivity skills.

I worked my way up through the ranks of the foreign service to ultimately becoming an ambassador, but in each of my positions I was building on a set of skills that would allow me to really represent the people of the United States, and try to work out relations with another country in a way that fostered friendship and our national interests.


Do you have any final words?


This is certainly an area that I'm personally interested in, and particularly the internationalization of HBCU's. So I think we have mutual interest.  I also think the work of Diversity Abroad is important to getting more people exposed to international opportunities, and that makes all the difference.