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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

March 2001

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The Lexus and the Olive Tree Considered

by Brenda Brown Schoonover *


About the author
Ambassador Schoonover, diplomat in residence at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, delivered these remarks as the keynote speaker at the annual banquet of the Joseph E. and Grace Needham Pogue Scholarship Foundation, February 12, 2001. The banquet took place at Chapel Hill, North Carolina.—Ed.
Good evening. I am delighted to be here this evening and to speak to this impressive group of Pogue finalists and Pogue scholars, our future leaders in America, and to advisors, friends, faculty, and administrators. I have been asked to speak about the "Merits of Public Service." Of course, since I am a career diplomat, I will focus on public service on an international level, specifically the American Foreign Service.

Often when people—and I mean people of all age groups—learn that I am an ambassador and that I am a career Foreign Service officer, they look at me incredulously and ask questions such as:

"How did you get into that field? Why would you want to do a thing like that? Why would you want to live overseas away from your family and friends in a strange culture?"

One young man who worked for the moving company that moved our effects from Lomé, Togo, and from Washington to Chapel Hill said to me as he carried a heavy box into the house, "I heard you just came back from living in Africa and that you are an ambassador." I responded yes, that was true. He looked at me quizzically and replied, "Man that sounds like fun. I need a job like that. How do you get a gig like that?"

For years, my brother, a senior executive with the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in Washington would ask when observing that my husband and I were off to yet another foreign assignment, "When are you going to settle down?" Years later, after he had put his three kids through college and was free to travel abroad, he visited us in Belgium and saw that our lives were pretty interesting. When he came to visit us in Lomé, I invited him to accompany me to a ceremony in which I inaugurated the opening of a school our embassy had sponsored under our Self-Help Program in the rural village of Tou Tou. The United States Government had contributed $10,000 for materials and the citizens of the village of Tou Tou had raised their own funds and used volunteer labor to construct the three-room schoolhouse. My brother became so enamored of the culture, the community’s dedication, and the spirit of the villagers that he went back to Washington, D.C., and convinced his church members to contribute funds to furnish desks and benches for the newly constructed school. He finally understood what my life as a Foreign Service officer was really like.

Let me start with a little background about how I came to be a Foreign Service officer. How did I decide on my career field and how did I get into the field?

A few months before graduating from college, I happened to see a documentary film about a program called "Teachers for East Africa" in which individuals could volunteer to go to East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania or Uganda) to teach English. Shortly after that I saw another documentary on the program "Crossroads Africa," in which individuals, usually students, would go to various African countries as volunteers for a few months to teach or work on developmental projects. These two programs stirred my interest in doing some kind of volunteer work in Africa. About this time presidential candidate John F. Kennedy was outlining his platform and spoke of a new agency he envisioned. He would call it the Peace Corps. Young Americans would go to developing countries for two years and teach or work on programs to meet the needs of the country. John Kennedy the candidate and later John Kennedy the President promoted volunteerism, and this idea appealed to many of the youth of that time, including me. We all remember his famous line in his Inaugural Address: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." And soon after Kennedy won the election and took office, he launched the Peace Corps. By early summer of his first year in office, the Peace Corps was established. The administration wasted no time in getting it off the ground. I signed up to take the Peace Corps examination as soon as I learned it was being given. Twelve hours later I had a telegram offering me a stint in the Peace Corps as a teacher of English as a second language and I accepted it. It wasn’t Africa, but it sounded interesting. For me the Peace Corps came along at just the right time, when I was young, full of a sense of adventure, enthusiastic, and idealistic. I am still all of those things—well, almost all. I was one of the first two hundred volunteers in the country to join the Peace Corps, the first of three to come from the state of Maryland, and one of the very few minority individuals in the program. It was a big deal and I loved it.

I have never regretted my decision to join the Peace Corps.

As a volunteer in the Philippines, I taught English as a second language and science in the rural town of Magarao on the island of Luzon. It was about a twelve-hour train ride from the capital, Manila. And what a train ride: a crowded boxcar with people, goats, and chickens. As a volunteer, when I had occasions to meet diplomats in Manila and on their visits to the province, I became aware of how U.S. missions abroad functioned. I had some dealing with officials from USAID and the United States Information Agency, who helped me in some of my development projects, such as establishing a community library and setting up a summer day camp.

A few years later when I was no longer a volunteer, I took a job as Associate Director of the Peace Corps in Tanzania. I finally made it to Africa. There I met Dick Schoonover, a career Foreign Service officer with the United States Information Agency. After finishing our tours in Tanzania, Dick and I were married and I accompanied him to Nigeria. From there we were assigned to Tunisia. It was becoming apparent that as the spouse of a Foreign Service officer, it would be pretty difficult for me to retain any kind of a consistent career as we traveled from post to post, with three-year assignments at each place, including Washington. I decided to join the Foreign Service because it was already in my blood. I was very much involved as a Foreign Service spouse. Joining it was one of the few options open to me abroad if my husband were to continue in the Service.

Joining the Foreign Service is another decision I have never regretted.

You might ask what is the Foreign Service and what does an embassy do? Why do we need embassies? The United States has accredited ambassadors, the President’s personal envoys, in the majority of the countries with which the United States has diplomatic relations. We maintain a physical presence in the form of an Embassy in more than 162 countries in the world. We are there to advocate and advance U.S. policies and interests and to report to Washington key political and economic developments in a country, particularly how they affect America interests. Our embassies and consulates (which are operations outside of the capital cities) also function to protect the welfare of U.S. citizens abroad and issue immigrant and non-immigrant visas under very strict guidelines to non-U.S. citizens who wish to immigrate to the United States or come to the U.S. to study, to transact business or as tourists.

I have had a wonderful and fulfilling career as a Foreign Service officer and I urge you to consider the Foreign Service as an option. Not every Foreign Service officer makes ambassador, in fact very few get to that top level, but that does not diminish the valuable experience you can have in serving your country abroad.

Continued: We need to have America's best presented abroad…
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In 2000, Ambassador Brenda Brown Schoonover returned from Lomé, Togo, where she served for two and a half years as the American ambassador. During her Foreign Service career she has held a variety of administrative positions in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Tanzania, Belgium, and in the Department of State. She was born in Baltimore, Maryland. After completing her undergraduate studies at Morgan State University, Ms Schoonover began her overseas service and is considered a charter member of the Peace Corps.

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