Since beginning her Foreign Service career in 1982 as a Consular Officer at Embassy Kingston, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield has risen through the ranks to the Minister Counselor level. She has served in Jamaica, Nigeria, The Gambia, Kenya, Pakistan, and Switzerland, in addition to work in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and the Office of the Director General of the Foreign Service. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau for African Affairs from January 2006 to July 2008 and as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration from June 2004 to January 2006.
Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield was the 2000 recipient of the Warren Christopher Award for Outstanding Achievement in Global Affairs in recognition of her work with refugees. She has received several Superior, Meritorious, and Performance awards during her career, including a 2007 and 2008 Presidential Meritorious Service Award. She was a 2010 inductee in the Louisiana State University Alumni Association Hall of Distinction. In 2011, the Ambassador received an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters in International Relations from the University of Liberia and a Doctor of Humane Letters Honoris Causa from Cuttington University.
Prior to joining the Department of State, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield taught Political Science at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. She earned a bachelor's degree from Louisiana State University and a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin, where she also completed work towards a doctorate.
Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield is a Louisiana native with a reputation for her culinary prowess.
The Department of State has developed a number of programs and initiatives in the last decade that have focused on diversifying the Foreign Service. Could you begin by describing a few of those you feel have been particularly important to the Department?
Let me start by saying that diversity is really key to us in the Foreign Service. It’s a high priority. It’s one of the top priorities that I have established as the Director General of the Foreign Service, but it’s also a priority that’s been with the Department for quite some time and we’ve invested a lot of resources and attention to diversity. We have two very key programs that have helped us recruit for diverse candidates. One is the Pickering Program that has been in existence for 20 years. The second is the Rangel Program that has been in existence for 10 years and both of those programs have helped us bring in about 20% of our diverse candidates. In addition to those two programs, we have our Diplomats in Residence. These are mostly senior officers, mid-level officers who are posted in 16 universities around the United States. Particularly focusing on universities and colleges that serve minority serving populations, and they assist us in our recruiting efforts.
What do you think the role of institutions of higher education is in supporting the Department’s recruiting and training programs?
I think their role is key to our process. Most importantly, they introduce young people to international affairs as a discipline. And they introduce them to the possibilities of working in government and in particularly to the State Department. Without the faculty at the universities and the deans, and the offices that assist students in finding job opportunities we would not be able to identify the young bright students who have expressed an interest in the Foreign Service. So we depend on the universities and the university staff to give us those leads to students who are interested in foreign affairs.
How would you like to see institutions of higher education involved in supporting the Department’s initiatives and programs, particularly those focused on training students in critical languages and global competencies?
Again, we have depended on universities to host our Diplomats in Residence. We look to those universities to organize programs that support giving students advice and guidance on foreign affairs, lecture programs that have been organized by professors also contribute to those efforts. Just last week, I participated in a program at Georgetown [University] where I spoke to about 80 students who were interested in foreign affairs. It was a good program, but it was organized by the university and they invited us to that program. They also have programs at universities where we have our Foreign Service offices participate, such as the Rust Fellowship where we have two foreign service officers, for example, at Georgetown.
Many international educational training programs are focused on college students. Do you think it's important for students from diverse backgrounds to have international experiences earlier than college?
That’s a great question and when I was first introduced to this new job, I was asked what my strategy would be to encourage more minority students in particular to be interested in foreign affairs. I responded that we need a two-pronged approach. We need an approach that directs our efforts at college graduates but we also need an approach that starts directing attention to students in 8th grade. Getting them interested in languages; getting them interested in the world outside their campuses, and just touching them early in their lives before they make a decision about what they want to do when they go to college so that once they start college they can make sure they have the coursework and the direction they will need to pursue a career in foreign affairs. So again, I think the earlier we start, the better.
When I was ambassador of Liberia I got invited to the international school and I spoke to 2nd graders. When I was in the States and my kids were in elementary school I would go to their schools on their international or career days to speak about what we do in the foreign affairs community. I think we’re not going to see the results of that early on. It’s going to take years. We’re going to have to be patient. But I think the more we do that at the earlier stages of students’ lives, the more payback we’ll see 10-15 years down the road with young people saying “I wanted to be a foreign service officer since I was in 3rd grade.”
What role do you think leadership plays in preparing young people for international experiences?
I think student leaders are so successful when they come into the Foreign Service. If they have displayed leadership skills early on, which means they have good strong communication skills; they have good interpersonal skills, strong negotiation skills then they will be successful in the Foreign Service. Those are the kinds of people we look at early on. If a young person has been active in their university, active in their community, active in organizations, they’re going to be successful in the Foreign Service. So, that is one of our key competencies we look at when we’re recruiting Foreign Service Officers, that the student or young person has shown that they have leadership skills. So hopefully as we are speaking to your audience that they will look for what they are doing as young leaders so that they can bring that to the table when they apply to the Foreign Service.
What do you think the importance is of having students of diverse backgrounds and from underserved communities study critical languages?
I think it’s important. They need to have a worldview beyond their communities, and occasionally students of diverse backgrounds don’t have that. They’re very focused inwardly, and to get those language skills early on in their lives, if they are not coming with a language already, I think it’s so important to their success in the Foreign Service. And also, it encourages them to look at other communities. If they’re studying Chinese – I’ve met some young people, for example who have studied Chinese – and they are already worldly. We have a number of programs that support young people studying languages that are funded through the State Department, and we would like to see more language study prior to coming in the service. We do teach languages once people come in, but if they bring the language with them, I think they are one step ahead of their colleagues.
You have had some wonderful opportunities to work internationally in your career. Could you tell us a little bit about your experiences abroad, and what skills you think were important in launching your career as a Foreign Service officer?
Let me start with your last question first. I think for me, and coming from a small town in Louisiana where we hardly had any experiences outside of Louisiana, I had the advantage of being exposed to Peace Corps when I was in 8th grade because there was a Peace Corps Training Center that brought African trainers to my community to train volunteers who were going to Somalia and Swaziland. So that was my first exposure to the world outside of small town Louisiana. I later went on to college and then to graduate school and had the opportunity to study in Liberia, and that was all I needed to know that I wanted to be in foreign affairs in some way or another. So that is my life story. I have lived and worked in countries all over the world as diverse as Afghanistan and as far away as Nigeria and Kenya. And I think every assignment that I’ve had has been rewarding in some way or another. I’ve always felt that on a daily basis, whatever my job was, that we were helping people by introducing them to the values that we believe in, in the United States – promoting democracy and human rights, promoting education for girls – these were all things that I never thought I would be doing, and never had any idea as a young minority growing up in a segregated community in Louisiana, these were opportunities that I didn’t know were out there.
So as we start looking at how we recruit for diversity, we need to get into those far flung communities that I came from to encourage young people to see a little bit of the world. And if we can do anything to help in doing that, such as participate in this interview that we’re doing, I’m really happy to do that. I think my life has been totally different from what it could have been had I not had that experience. And I’ve been in the Foreign Service now for 31 years. It’s been 31 great years. I’ve never regretted a day. I’ve never had an assignment I didn’t like, and never visited a country that I wouldn’t like to visit again. So again, I encourage people to look for this opportunity in their futures.
Our sources tell us you have excellent culinary skills. Have you been able to integrate any local dishes from your travels into your recipe book, and if you have, which recipes are your favorite?
I’m embarrassed by this; someone put that in my bio many, many years ago, and I do love to cook. And I do include recipes, for example, one of my favorite dishes to prepare is sukuma wiki. It’s collard greens cooked the way the Kenyans cook them. I sort of revised it a little bit because I don’t put meat, and I don’t put all the oil in it that the Kenyans cook but my kids love sukuma wiki. We don’t refer to it as collard greens, we use the Kenyan, Swahili word for it, and it’s very much a part of our regular diet.
But when I’m traveling overseas I like to talk about – we call it e-gumbo, but we can call it e-diplomacy – it’s eating diplomacy. And that is a great way to get to know people and learn about their culture, by getting to know their foods, and showing them that you appreciate what they eat. I’m not an adventurous eater, so I don’t like to get too out there on eating strange and weird things. But I’m usually willing to try anything that is a vegetable, and I will try cooking that. So when I’m overseas I will prepare meals and also have meals with the natives and with people of those countries.
Do you have any final thoughts you would like to add?
Just to say to your audience that the Foreign Service is an amazing career that will allow you to see the world, and to do something that most people in the United States don’t have. You will work in an environment where the flag of the United States flies over your office space, and you’re representing the people of the United States and you’re representing the government of the United States overseas. You’re helping countries that may not otherwise succeed to succeed. You’re enticing young people to want to explore places outside their environment. It’s an amazing career. It’s an extraordinarily rewarding, and I can’t say anything more than go onto our website: www.careers.state.gov and look at the opportunities that we have to offer.