I Want Her Job: Interview with Ambassador Harriet Elam-Thomas

I Want Her Job:
Interview with Ambassador Harriet Elam-Thomas

Ambassador Harriet Elam-Thomas has worked for forty years around the world as a diplomat. She served her first tour in Senegal, worked in diplomacy in Mali and Cote D’Ivoire, was Cultural Attaché in Athens, Director of the Cultural Center in Istanbul, Counselor of Public Affairs in Brussels, and Counselor of the U.S. Information Agency. The Ambassador also served as the Diplomat-in-Residence at the University of Central Florida [editor’s note: my alma mater!].

Currently, Ambassador Elam-Thomas lives in Central Florida. She recently published her memoir, Diversifying Diplomacy: My Journey from Roxbury to Dakar.

Ambassador Elam-Thomas as a child in Boston

You have had an incredible journey- from living in segregated Boston, to living in Europe, to being appointed ambassador to Senegal to being the Diplomat-in-Residence at UCF (my alma mater!). Can you briefly expand on some key points of your life? 

Thanks to the “village” that helped shape me throughout my career, I moved from being a shy young woman – the youngest in the family of four much older – over achievers in the section of Boston called Roxbury to become:

–           An exchange student in France,
–           A secretary in the American Embassy in Paris,
–           An executive assistant in the Nixon White House,
–           A career diplomat who served in France, Senegal, Mali, the Cote d’Ivoire, Greece, Turkey, Cyprus and Belgium.
–           The U.S. Ambassador to Senegal appointed by President Clinton and extended by President George W. Bush.

Through the nurturing of a host of dedicated individuals in the U.S. foreign service, beginning with an African American secretary in the U.S. Embassy in Paris and then a series of senior career diplomats, including Ambassador Monteagle Stearns, Ambassador Terence Todman, Ambassador Edward J. Perkins and a host of other senior African American and Caucasian career diplomats, who saw something in this “little girl from Roxbury” who had potential.

Despite the inevitable hurdles of being a woman in a predominantly male profession, I learned Greek at 42 and Turkish at 47.  I represented my country in a series of challenging assignments in the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

My career highlights include awards from the Greek and Turkish governments, the Director General’s Cup, one of the most prestigious honors for former career U.S. diplomats. Let me suggest that viewers of this interview read my recently published memoire, Diversifying Diplomacy: My Journey from Roxbury to Dakar, to learn more of the highlights.

Ambassador Elam-Thomas

What drew you into a career in the U.S. Foreign Service?

During the summer of 1962, I lived with a French family in Lyon, France.  The warm welcome and sincerity of the French people towards this young African-American woman way back gave me a heightened sense of self.  I decided that I might be able to change the stereotypical impressions many had of Americans and people of color if I worked abroad. Since this time was in the midst of the Civil Rights crises of the 1960s I wanted to improve the image of America that many outside of the U.S. had about individuals of my race. I wanted to demonstrate that not only could I speak proper English, had a college education, spoke French and that I came from a family which valued education. Not many African Americans in those days had brothers who were lawyers, one who would later become a judge, then the chief justice of the Boston Municipal Court and then move to the Superior Court of Massachusetts.


A typical day in the life of an Ambassador:

There is no such thing as a typical day in the life of an ambassador. Just imagine how atypical September 11, 2001 was for any U.S. ambassador posted abroad. I was one of them. On that day and, in fact, every day my responsibility was to ensure the safety and security of Americans working, researching and living in the host country (Senegal).

After I briefed all embassy employees in the main chancery building, I went to three satellite offices of the Embassy (U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Information Service and to the Embassy Warehouse). Despite the sobering experience, I did my level best to calm the concerns and empathize with the employees (534 at the time). It was inevitable at least one of our embassy employees would know or have a connection to the victims.

Otherwise, many days involved working in concert with the host government to attain U.S. Government objectives for our relationships with the country. That involved meetings with the Foreign Minister on UN-related issues and votes the USG needed to have resolutions passed in that world body. Some of those meetings could include discussions on:

  • Enhanced cooperation against terrorist threats
  • Improving Senegal’s border security
  • Joint-military educational and operational training programs
  • Monitoring Senegalese presidential elections
  • Open Skies Agreement,
  • Federal Aviation Administration upgrades to the airport
  • Enhancing Senegal’s airport security
  • Implementation of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act which reduced tariffs on agricultural and textile products produced in Africa
  • Increased international trade
  • Facilitation of U.S. investors in Senegal
  • Improvement of health and educational facilities in Senegal
  • Hosting U.S. Congressional Delegations
  • Hosting U.S. Presidential Visits

The ambassador usually speaks at periodic American Studies seminars, openings of international conferences, art exhibits, and cultural performances of visiting U.S. artists. We often host receptions to highlight the importance of art and education as communicators across political divides.

The conflict resolution element that is a key part of traditional diplomacy often arises within an American Embassy family. Resolving internal conflict with employees can be as challenging as negotiation with disputing parties in a government. Ambassadors often find themselves playing the role of “resident” psychologist, family counselor and mediator. No two days are alike, but all are life enhancing, and most are gratifying.

What is your proudest moment of being in the Foreign Service?

Speaking at an all-Africa American-Studies Conference in Dakar, Senegal as the U.S. Ambassador. Almost 30 years earlier as a junior diplomat, I worked diligently to encourage the Senegalese Ministry of Education to establish an American Studies Program at the University of Dakar. At almost every attempt, I felt I was thwarted by the then still “colonial mindset” of the Senegalese that favored the French approach to the student of any of the disciplines at the then relatively new University of Dakar. It was a joy to stand before an audience of 150 senior African academics, all deeply interested in American Studies (focused this time on the rule of law).  In short, my efforts as a junior diplomat in that same country paid off.

I read in an interview that you were uniquely positioned in Senegal- how did your heritage and femininity aid you as a diplomat?

Let me respond first to the second portion of the question. Women have been diplomats for most of their lives and, while the diplomatic service has been a bastion of masculinity for centuries, there are advantages to being a woman. Lest the inference be incorrect, I refer to our intellectual and innate leadership skills. Because we have to be better prepared that many of our male counterparts to be credible, we can command respect by the mere fact of being well informed.

Cover of the Ambassador’s new book

How did you come to direct the Diplomacy Program at UCF?

In August 2003, I became the first Department of State Diplomat in Residence (DIR) at the University of Central Florida. The role of a DIR is to recruit young men and women from colleges and universities in addition to the usual foreign affairs related institutions like Georgetown, American University, George Washington University and Johns Hopkins, to become career diplomats. John Bersia, The Special Assistant to the President of UCF for Global Perspectives has been my host for the past 15 years.

While I came for one year, I have remained for fifteen because of the excellent collaboration of this office with my lifelong interest – broadening the focus of many Americans to a world beyond the confines of the United States. Following two years as the DIR, I initiated a new Diplomacy Course in the Honors College.  Keen interest in the course and the academic success of several of the graduates of the course, prompted UCF officials to submit a request to the Florida government in Tallahassee to offer a certificate in diplomacy. As students became even more successful in gaining prestigious fellowships for graduate school specializing in international affairs, UCF officials received approval to establish a Diplomacy Course. Readers of this interview will find additional background on this question in my memoir, Diversifying Diplomacy: My Journey from Roxbury to Dakar

Did other careers interest you? Had you not gone into diplomacy, which careers would you have liked to try?

Initially, I thought I would become a legal secretary and work in my brothers’ law offices in Boston, MA. The exchange student experience in France changed my life and served as the catalyst for what became a 42-year career in the U.S. Diplomatic Service.

If a reader is interested in foreign service/diplomacy, how do you recommend they pursue this interest?

For those who are still in high school, they should search out every opportunity to learn about the cultures of their classmates, many of whom may come from other parts of the world.

Try to learn as much about geography and become familiar with the history of different parts of the world from the appropriate courses offered in their school.

Once in college, enroll in international relations courses at their university.  Whenever possible, they should try to have an exchange experience for a summer or an academic year abroad.

In that connection, they should purchase a publication done by the Institute of International Education entitled:  A Student’s Guide to Study Abroad.

Most important, they should learn to respect the important cultural traditions of individuals from parts of the world from their classmates and neighbors.

For those with specific interests in becoming a career U.S. diplomat: I suggest they visit www.careers.state/gov

What do I do for fun?

I truly love to travel to places I have never seen. I enjoy playing Scrabble with my husband, attending cultural festivals in the cities I visit and attending performing arts events.

What is the most important lesson to pass on to today’s teen girls?

Do not let others define who you are

Be your authentic self.

Be prepared for excuses for lack of preparation are not acceptable in any setting.

Be sensitive to those who are different and try to learn from them

Finally, as Peggy Millon states, “Remember, you never touch people so lightly that you do not leave a trace.”

If you are interested in learning more about Ambassador Elam-Thomas, her memoir, Diversifying Diplomacy: My Journey from Roxbury to Dakar, is available for purchase