The Life of BYU Alumni Diplomats - BYU Magazine
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A Diplomatic Life

A Diplomatic Life

Going foreign to serve, BYU alumni represent the United States on the sidelines of history.

By Brittany Karford Rogers (BA ’07) in the Winter 2012 Issue

Matthew H. Tueller (BA ’81) watched—and heard—the human mass swell from thousands to hundreds of thousands, choking Cairo’s streets in February 2011. As deputy chief of mission (DCM), he was the no. 2 U.S. diplomat in Egypt. In the weeks prior and ensuing, he would host Egyptian revolutionaries in his home; he would evacuate his own family—not for the first time in his career—along with more than half of the embassy staff; and when he slept, he would take up a cot in the embassy, where he lived for the duration of Egypt’s 18-day uprising. One of the most dramatic moments, he says, was the night of Hosni Mubarak’s last speech.

“The anger was palpable,” says Tueller, describing the mounting roar as the besieged Egyptian president refused to resign. The ferment drowned out the TVs Tueller and his colleagues watched in their offices, so they took to the embassy balcony overlooking Tahir Square. “People were taking off their shoes, picking up rocks, anything they could throw.” Thirty years prior, as one of the first four students in BYU’s Arabic program, Tueller had won a prestigious grant to study in Egypt, where he witnessed Mubarak’s installation after President Anwar El Sadat’s assassination. Now he would see Mubarak deposed.

“It’s one of the great things, I think, about the Foreign Service,” says Tueller. “You’re often on the sidelines of history.”

He has been on those sidelines his whole life. Tueller’s father was also a Foreign Service officer, living out the career, which demanded uprooting his family—with 10 kids in tow—and changing countries about every three years. All 10 Tueller children graduated from BYU—where Matt’s sister Anna Tueller Stone (BA ’78) insists they experienced their biggest culture shock. Matt, the only Tueller to follow in Dad’s footsteps, says his BYU degree has served him well in the Foreign Service. And he finds BYU connections everywhere he goes.

A current of alumni runs through the ranks that staff 265 U.S. embassies, consulates, and diplomatic missions around the globe. Numbers aren’t tracked officially, but anecdotally the State Department confirms that BYU is among the top 10 alma maters of Foreign Service officers. BYU alums have even reached the zenith of the Foreign Service: the rank of ambassador.

In 2008 then–Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice swore in R. Stephen Beecroft (BA ’82), her former executive assistant, as U.S. ambassador to Jordan. That same year, alumna Deborah K. Jones (BA ’78) was appointed U.S. ambassador to Kuwait—just across Iraq from Beecroft, her old BYU buddy. And making a brief BYU ambassador trifecta in the Middle East complete, Tueller was promoted to U.S. ambassador to Kuwait in 2011, taking the baton from Jones. “This university has produced a fair share of fine public servants,” says Rice. “[The Foreign Service] requires the highest regard for the United States and what it can be. It requires the highest commitment. . . . It requires a kind of selflessness that I associate with BYU and the community that BYU represents, the Latter-day Saints.”

In the truest sense, alumni in the diplomatic corps of the Foreign Service are representatives of their country—and their church—abroad. And from Tobias A. Bradford (BA ’00) explaining football to kids in Mozambique with clips of BYU beating the U of U to Aleisha Woodward (BA ’92) responding to the outpour of offers to house stranded Americans in Londoners’ homes after 9/11, they have a slew of stories.

Getting In

David M. Kennedy, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO, looks on—at least via portrait—as a handful of students begin to arrive at BYU’s Kennedy Center, Doritos and pillows in hand, ready to watch Charlie Wilson’s War. Last week it was Cry Freedom. Next week is Stalingrad. Through the BYU Foreign Service Student Organization’s (FSSO) Fridays at the Movies, they are hoping to glean something that might come in handy on the infamous Foreign Service Officer Test—an early draft of which J. Reuben Clark, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and namesake of the BYU Law School, had a hand in writing.

It is a test to fear, with questions spanning politics, history, economics, and geography—“really everything under the sun,” says Ryan D. Aiken (BA ’02), a 2009 hire who managed to pass on the first try. He remembers one question in particular, “What sub-Saharan African country remained independent after World War II?” with four countries listed as possible answers. “I mean, honestly, who knows what happened after WWII in Africa?” says Aiken. The trick: only one of the countries was sub-Saharan. Pass the initial test and it’s on to an essay-writing evaluation. Then there’s an all-day oral assessment. After that there’s a battery of exceptionally thorough medical and security clearances.

The odds aren’t great: roughly 40 percent of those who take the test pass; 40 percent of those pass the essay portion; and 40 percent of those pass the oral (so only six of 100 make it to the clearances). Those with the highest cumulative scores receive placement first. Proficiency in a foreign language can boost your score—a boon for BYU applicants.

Amy Hyatt, former diplomat in residence for Arizona, Nevada, and Utah, says there’s a high percentage of candidates from BYU who speak foreign languages—and speak them well. “It’s not just that they’ve learned them in school. . . . They’ve lived in those environments, so they really know the nuances, the idioms,” says Hyatt. “BYU,” she adds, “is unprecedented in terms of the number of students who are interested in the Foreign Service.”

No doubt, BYU fosters a craving for things international, with 150 study abroad offerings, Washington Seminar, Model United Nations, and Kennedy Center lectures featuring dozens of foreign plenipotentiaries each year.

The specific interest in the Foreign Service is nurtured year-round by Cory W. Leonard (BA ’95), assistant director of BYU’s Kennedy Center. Despite being based in Provo, Leonard is a maven of who’s who in Washington, D.C. Periodically, he takes students to tour the Department of State, and he mentors the FSSO, noted by the Foreign Service Journal as the first university-based group of its kind. He also brings alumni officers back to campus for events like the annual “Think Dink.”

Each fall John W. Dinkelman (BS ’84), Dink for short, circles the Hinckley Center Ballroom for a couple hors d’oeuvres hours at an FSSO event that mimics an embassy open house. The students jockey for time; Dink shows them how to work the room. He is quite the resource. For an unprecedented five-and-a-half-year stint—during the peak of the service’s growth—Dink oversaw the Foreign Service orientation program, nicknamed A100 after the room where training was first conducted in the ’20s at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI). A100 is a bit like the Missionary Training Center. The initial two-month training takes place in a cocooned environment in Arlington, Va., where new officers are crammed with everything from ethics to self-defense. “As the incoming A100 class, we were all required to wear these bright pink name badges,” recalls recent hire Aiken. “Everyone knew immediately who the newbies were.” New officers also have no control over their first diplomatic assignment, finding out in dramatic fashion at the end of A100, surrounded by family, on what is known as Flag Day.

“You’re telling them where the next three to five years of their lives will be focused and what funky, boutique language they’ll be studying for the next nine months,” says Dink, who speaks Spanish, Serbo-Croatian, Turkish, and Dutch. Expected to be available for worldwide service, officers usually spend a year back at the FSI for each new language.

Out of the A100 gates, it’s off to a career that “may propel you to heights you never dreamed of. . . . But that really isn’t what it’s about,” says Dink, who, in his career, has unwittingly shared a mouth-numbing beverage with a chief in Micronesia, gone home teaching with police tailing him, and huddled with his family for the duration of a Mexican-cartel shootout. “What it’s about,” says Dink, now DCM in the Bahamas, “is the adventure that being a diplomat truly is.”

In the Thick of Things

“Christmas is like the Fourth of July, which is like Monday, which is like any other day of the year,” Christina L. Tomlinson (BA ’90) says of her experience as a senior watch officer at the State Department Operations Center in Washington, D.C. Which is to say, the job never stops. The ops center is the nucleus of the Foreign Service, the around-the-clock crisis-monitoring and briefing center for the Secretary of State.

In 2010 Tomlinson ate Thanksgiving turkey in the office, ramping up for the Wikileaks breach that would release hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. diplomatic cables. After that died down, she came up for air just in time for the Arab Spring. “I jealously guard my sleep,” says Tomlinson, who spent two day shifts, two night shifts, and two overnight shifts a week feeding and being fed information, in addition to putting Secretary Hillary Clinton through to, say, the British Prime Minister.

It is the front-row seat to world events Tomlinson has aspired to from the time the Berlin Wall fell. “I can remember sitting in front of my television in my BYU apartment, watching it come down, crying,” says Tomlinson, now the special assistant to the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. “I feel some of those same feelings as I sit in my office now and see these momentous world events going on. I’ve had those feelings since BYU, that I always wanted to be connected to what was going on in the world.”

Alumni in the service have been connected—even integral—to major world events. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Pat Farnsworth Heller (’56) was held hostage in the U.S. embassy there, then in Baghdad before she was finally able to leave via Jesse Jackson’s plane. Jeffrey M. Hovenier (BA ’88) helped reopen the U.S. embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, after Milosevic was removed from power. Last year he served on the U.S. National Security Council, convening regularly with President Obama in the White House Situation Room.

A Foreign Service career can be both glamorous, like Hovenier joining President Obama to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize in Norway, and not-so-much, like an officer watching the president’s luggage on the tarmac. An officer’s career is largely guided by one of five tracks, called “cones”: consular, economic, political, management, and public diplomacy. Entry-level officers must serve in a consular assignment, doing visa interviews and responding to U.S. citizens in distress. From there, officers apply for postings, usually in their cone, through which they become steeped in some of the most pressing issues in foreign affairs today.

In Peru, for instance, Alexandra Zwahlen Tenny (BA ’01) was dropped by helicopter into the jungle with coca-eradication teams, where she met with coca growers and their children, the skin on their small feet and hands bleached from mashing the plant.

Working near London’s Westminster Abbey and Houses of Parliament, economic officer Stephen P. Goldrup (BA ’87) collaborates with UK counterparts to help ensure that economic sanctions designed to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions and counter the financing of terrorism are effective.

And in Vietnam Christian M. Marchant (BA ’99) worked to promote human rights and religious freedom. In what he calls the defining experience of his career thus far, Marchant put himself between the police and a female political dissident they were roughing up outside the trial of one of her friends. Later that night, local thugs assaulted the woman outside her home, hitting her in the head with a brick. She was later convicted of assault and sentenced to a three-and-a-half year jail term. Marchant helped negotiate her early release and fulfill her wish to emigrate: “I was privileged to fly with her and her daughter, escort them to America, and be the first to welcome them to the United States and to freedom,” says Marchant. “That was a real special experience.”

His work, and that of all those in the Foreign Service, has its perils. Last year, on his way to meet with the premier dissident in the country, Marchant was attacked. “Several police officers pushed me down on the ground,” he recounts. The police then dragged him into a car, slamming his leg repeatedly in the door in the process. “After getting me in the car, an officer jumped on top of me, knelt on my chest, slammed my head against the seat, and had one hand on my throat. I had no idea where they were taking me, and I couldn’t breathe for a little bit,” says Marchant. “Just talking about it gets my heart racing again.” The police drove to a government office in the province and locked Marchant in the car—with his cell phone. He called the embassy.

Following the incident, Marchant received calls from the Assistant Secretary of State, staff of the National Security Council, and friends and colleagues throughout the world, though he never desired that sort of attention. “I don’t think any Foreign Service officer, especially at my level, strives to make the A section of the New York Times.” It was hard, he adds, to explain to his daughter why the police would want to beat up Daddy.

Incidentally, the attack happened in January 2011, the month before Marchant was scheduled to receive one of the State Department’s highest honors: the Human Rights and Democracy Achievement Award. The department awards only three human rights awards each year. When Marchant flew to Washington to be honored, it just so happened that one of the other 2011 award recipients was also a BYU alumnus, Ambassador Beecroft, who received the Diplomacy for Human Rights Award for his work in Jordan, including efforts to reform honor-killing laws.

Home Is Where Your Stuff Is

Emma, 5, accompanied her mom, Jennie Bitter Marchant (’95), to Utah, where Jennie delivered her third child rather than in Vietnam with her Foreign Service officer husband. Making new friends on the playground her first day of kindergarten, Emma called out to a little boy, “Hi! My name is Emma. What country are you from?” He just looked at her and said, “I’m from Orem.”

The “Where are you from?” question is a conflicting one for kids with parents in the service. What do you say when you’re Jimmy Neel, 7, who spoke his first words in Portuguese, can play with other kids in Chinese, takes Egyptian culture classes, and prefers eel over chicken nuggets?

“For us, he’s thriving,” says Jaimee Macana Neel (BA ’97), who, like many Foreign Service parents, believes the exposure to cultures, languages, and the socioeconomic spectrum gives kids unmatched opportunities and perspective. The international schools the children of Foreign Service officers attend, at no cost to their parents, are excellent; they go to Thailand and Greece and Kenya on vacation. And yet, their lives are in continual upheaval, as they leave friends behind and sometimes face antagonistic sentiments for an America they may hardly know.

It is just one of the aspects of family life in the service that has its challenges and charms. Another? Family time.

Jaimee and her husband, James P. Neel (BA ’99), are both Foreign Service officers, known in the service as a tandem couple. The trick as a tandem is finding two open positions at the same embassy—and finding that every three years. So far, so good for the Neels, who are now in Cairo. The armored embassy van picks them both up for work in the morning. As in most posts around the world, they are able to afford a nanny. Dinner and chores are done when they arrive home from work, so the Neels just have family time. “I don’t know anybody who gets to see their spouse as much as we see each other,” says James. Yet they know it won’t last forever.

As officers move up in rank, available positions are fewer and rarely at the same embassy. And the higher positions are more demanding.

“I told Colin Powell that he was with us all the time in our kitchen,” says Anne Tisdel Beecroft (BS ’82), who hung a photo of her husband, Steve, receiving an award from his boss, Secretary Powell, so their kids would know where Dad was. In the lead-up to the Iraq War, especially, Steve was known to sleep in his office in D.C.

The families of Foreign Service officers also represent the United States—at all times. Before Goldrup transferred to London, he and his family were in Beijing, where he arranged for President Bush to attend Protestant church services during the Olympic Games. Goldrup brought his family. And during their time in China, the Goldrups got used to being the face of America in countless photographs. “I remember a visit to Tiananmen Square where, within the space of an hour, we had something like 200 requests for photographs with our kids,” says Goldrup. In his line of work, he says, it’s imperative “to put a human face on America.”

Foreign Service life does have a way of jelling the family, which becomes a constant amid change. Expats also stick together; Anne compares an embassy community to a church ward—you’re thrown in with everybody, and everybody helps each other. That community includes the diplomats of other countries: “[In Syria] I taught an American patchwork quilting class that was the hottest thing in town,” says Anne.

Additional support from the local culture helps make the career possible. Deborah Jones, now ambassador in residence at the Naval War College, was stationed in Syria, apart from her Foreign Service husband, when she was expecting with their firstborn, Ana. Within two weeks, she says, the Arab women noticed something was different—and sent a hot meal to Jones at the embassy every day for lunch. “I always say that Ana was raised from the womb on good Syrian cooking,” says Jones. “Those are the ties that bind.”

With slight adaptations, family life goes on as it does elsewhere. “Home” is just less of a tangible structure and more a product of familiar items and traditions. Holidays are shared with extended family via Skype. And teenagers are still, well, teenagers. “I’ve had more difficult negotiations with my children than I ever had with Kosovo Serbs,” says Hovenier.

Saints in the Service

“Friday is church day for Mormons in Baghdad,” Beecroft, now the DCM in Iraq, writes to his family about his new ward. His assignment is an unaccompanied hardship post; families aren’t allowed.

The 25 members of his branch share their meeting space—a club on the embassy compound—with other denominations. “The billiard room isn’t closed, so the ricocheting of pool balls faintly punctuates prayers, talks, and lessons,” Beecroft notes. “The guys in camouflage carry guns, including sidearms, when they give talks, teach lessons, pass the sacrament. The woman who plays the keyboard accessorizes with an M-16.”

Beecroft has spent his career almost exclusively in the Middle East. His son Warren N. Beecroft (’14) has childhood memories from Saudi Arabia, where Christian congregations were not permitted to gather publicly. Church meetings rotated through members’ homes, where they took the “sacrament out of regular-sized cups with just a little bit of water in them,” says Warren. He recalls home teaching one family in Jordan as a teen: “They lived on the rooftop, not in the actual building. They have a little hut on the roof—and that’s where I went home teaching.”

As Foreign Service officers describe them, opportunities to serve tend to feel more palpable abroad. Tenny, the officer who did narcotics work in Peru, was asked to double her fast offerings while posted in Jamaica. “It was an opportunity for us to serve in a different way,” she says. Her family elects to attend wards and branches with the locals over those made up primarily of expats. Sometimes just by showing up, she says, a Foreign Service family doubles a branch’s attendance. Occasionally, as was the case for Manuel F. Acosta (BS ’71) in Djibouti, an officer is the only member in an entire country.

“I had to have my own services,” says Acosta, who obtained authority from Church leaders to conduct his own sacrament meeting. “I would sing the opening song, I would have an opening prayer, and then I would sing the sacrament song and bless the sacrament. And after I partook of the sacrament, I would have a talk. . . . I’d give it to myself. My services lasted two hours.”

Before he joined the service in 1979, Acosta had held a family council in which each member had a say about the career move. “When it came to me, I said, ‘Well, the way I look at it, it’s like going on a 20-year mission for the Church all over the world,” says Acosta. And he feels that’s what they did. At age 8, his daughter was the piano player for sacrament meetings, and his sons taught priesthood classes at age 14. And his wife, Lydia, found a creative solution to hosting receptions sans alcohol. “My wife learned how to make exotic fruit drinks using the local fruits of each country we were assigned to,” says Acosta. “It became a big hit in the Foreign Service. She decorated each drink and gave it an exotic name.” Nineteen years after the Foreign Service took Acosta to Costa Rica, he returned as a mission president.

Those in the Foreign Service also have unique opportunities to interact with apostles and prophets. Tobias A. Bradford (BA ’00), currently an officer in Mozambique, grew up with a father in the service. President Howard W. Hunter stayed in his family’s home in Egypt, and he distinctly remembers a General Authority fireside in his living room. “That was one of the very first times my heart was really pricked,” says Bradford. “I will always remember that feeling. . . . A lot of it was because of how close and intimate that setting was. . . . It’s something probably few people have the chance to do.”

To Go Out into the World

Growing up, Aleisha Woodward (BA ’92) helped tend younger siblings while watching the evening news, glued to stories like the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. “I was a weird little kid,” she explains. She always knew she wanted to be a diplomat. She took the exam while a grad student at BYU. “And I’ve had the coolest job ever since,” says Woodward, who’s served in Tokyo; London; Chisinau, Moldova; and is now a consul general in Perth, Australia.

“You’re not supposed to have favorite assignments,” she says. “That being said, the years I lived in Moldova are some of the most incredible of my life because I felt I had an impact, from both a church and a professional perspective.” She tells of teaching a seminary class, a group of 25 ages 12–30—mostly converts—who spent their Saturday afternoons at the church. Half spoke Romanian; the other half, Russian. “We’d go around reading scriptures, one verse each, in English, Russian, Romanian, Romanian, Russian, English,” says Woodward. “Somehow, it worked.” She also tells of administering exchange programs that sent 3,000 Moldovans to America each year so they could see, firsthand, a market economy and a democracy. “When they came back, I would ask them, ‘What surprised you most about the United States?’” says Woodward. “Many told me it was the feeling of freedom.”

“The only thing I believe in as fundamentally as the gospel is democracy and civic participation,” says Woodward. “The opportunity to help people understand the value and blessings—and the responsibilities—of living in a democratic country was almost a missionary-like experience.”

Such motives underlie the work of BYU alumni in the Foreign Service—and outside observers take notice.

In her tenure as Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice says she probably worked alongside Beecroft, her executive assistant, more than anyone else. She describes a commonality among him, others she’s known from BYU, and the LDS community at large, a “sense of how you go out into the world to serve—that what you learn and your intellectual pursuits are not just to be hoarded internally but are really to go out into the world. That’s how I would characterize people I’ve known from BYU.”

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