The Art (And Life) of Diplomacy

Alumnae in the U.S. Department of State say that in spite of its challenges, they were drawn to life in the foreign service because fostering constructive dialogue between nations appeals to their sense of Non Ministrari sed Ministrare.

Collage of images related to Haiti and Japan, with maps and people

Illustration by Stuart Bradford

When violent protests seized Haiti in early 2019, Michele Sison ’81 flew into overdrive. Transportation in the country was paralyzed, businesses closed, and public and private property was destroyed. The United States government issued a travel warning, Haitian children missed school for weeks, and residents went without food, water, and gas.

Through the chaos, Sison, the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, saw her role clearly. She and the U.S. embassy were in a unique position to act as a convener—to cool the tension on the streets by creating a space for all parties to come together.

“The Haitian people were really paying a price,” Sison said in an interview shortly after the wave of violence subsided. “The violence, of course, leads and led to further instability and suffering for Haitian families, the average Haitian people.” She spoke with the cool demeanor that could only come to someone who has devoted four decades of her life to foreign service in some of the most volatile political climates our world has ever seen.

The embassy quickly put those convening powers to work. Sison and her staff brought together top Haitian government and opposition leaders, businesspeople, and regular citizens—all to try to tamp down the situation. It was crucial, Sison says, to foster “a constructive and inclusive national dialogue.” All parties involved needed a space to “express themselves peacefully,” she says.

Asked if she fears the risk that comes with living and leading through such a dangerous situation, Sison says she is more focused on serving Haiti as a representative of the U.S., a close ally. “We happen to be here just a couple of hours away from the United States, so we’re a close neighbor, and we’re a longtime friend of Haiti,” she says. What keeps her going, she says, is a genuine commitment to securing prosperity, democracy, and stability in Haiti.

Michele Sison ’81
Photo by Bloomberg/Getty Images

Over the course of her career, Sison has endured dangerous assignments across the globe, frequent moves, and an unpredictable lifestyle. But she and the other alumnae who have dedicated themselves to the State Department and foreign service say, despite the challenges, the professional and personal rewards are immeasurable. They follow the path out of a deep sense of service to the U.S. and the world—and become full participants in America’s relationship with the world. These alumnae embody Wellesley’s motto—not to be ministered unto, but to minister—to their cores.

“I think for all of us in the Foreign Service,” Sison says, “it’s that second word, service, that we really feel drawn to.”

More than 8,000 miles away in Tokyo, Jessica Berlow ’03 acts as a convener of a different sort. She oversees the U.S.-Japan alliance as a political-military officer in the State Department. The alliance is a long-running security partnership, developed after World War II, that plays a central role in East Asian geopolitics. Berlow manages and analyzes U.S. military basing in Japan, Japan’s own defense policy, and Japan’s defense relationship with Korea, Australia, India, and others in the region.

“So right now, the hot topic for me,” she says, “is looking at how Japan plans to implement two brand-new, long-range defense policy plans … and where do the United States and other allies fit into that?”

On a typical day, she meets with counterparts at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense to talk about big questions: “What is Japan looking to do to respond to situation X in the region, or how does Japan envision working with the United States on problem Y?” She and her office also support senior-level visits from the U.S., including the secretaries of state and defense and congressional delegations.

Berlow’s interest in the region was inspired by the Japanese department at Wellesley, which encouraged her to study abroad for a year in Kyoto. “One of the best experiences of my life,” Berlow says. After graduation, she returned to Japan on a Fulbright Fellowship to study the U.S.-Japan defense relationship.

She now speaks Japanese, Mandarin, and Spanish, and says Wellesley gave her the support to really challenge herself while “hearing the message from folks around me that I could do this, no matter what the obstacle was.”

Her return to Japan as a State Department officer was different. “Having studied Japan from an academic angle for many years, both at Wellesley and at grad school,” she says, she really wanted to “have a chance to be a full-time practitioner of the alliance and how we manage that alliance with Japan.”

Ambassador Sison’s list of postings over her 37-year career reads like a tour of U.S. foreign-policy hot spots: Haiti, Togo, Benin, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, India, Pakistan, Iraq, United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, the United States Mission to the United Nations, and, now again, Haiti.

She was recently named a career ambassador, the State Department’s highest diplomatic rank. She is also a recipient of the U.S. Presidential Distinguished Service Award and several State Department awards, including for her work on counterproliferation and human trafficking.

When Sison was named ambassador to Haiti in February 2018, it was a homecoming of sorts. Haiti was at the beginning of that list—her first Foreign Service assignment in 1982, soon after she graduated from Wellesley. She described it as a full-circle experience, and says she was “very excited and very happy” to return.

Jessica Berlow ’03
Photo by Casey Brooke

When she’s not responding to local emergencies, she leads programs that strengthen Haiti’s democracy and the lives of its citizens. That includes everything from access to health care and education to helping women run for office or create small businesses. Her embassy recently supported the Haiti Tech Summit—deemed the “Davos of the Caribbean.”

As a Filipina-American growing up in Virginia, Sison says she developed an interest in communicating across cultures early on.

When she has lived abroad, she often has been asked: “Where are you from?” followed up with “You don’t look like an American”—a question and assumption that makes many people of color in the U.S. cringe. But Sison says it’s her favorite question because it opens the door for her to share the story of the U.S. and all its diversity. She’ll talk about her own family’s history and America’s “unique ability to use our diverse backgrounds to produce the place in the world that we have today.”

Attending Wellesley broadened her understanding of the world and how interdependent its issues are. She still recalls a specific class discussion with Professor Rob Paarlberg on international food and agriculture policy in which she learned that food insecurity is about so much more than one person not having enough food to eat. It is political, economic, and social—and a women’s issue. “Women, at the end of the day, are trying to make sure that their families are fed and their children have the proper nutrition.”

Like Berlow, Sison is now an active practitioner in the issues she once learned about in a classroom. In Haiti, she says food insecurity is “on my front burner … as we look at the effects of a drought in some of the areas of Haiti combined with some of the challenges in the urban areas that we’re seeing … I’m dealing with those issues on food insecurity and working with USAID today.”

Less than one year after Berlow was accepted into the Foreign Service, she found herself heading to the U.S. consulate in Lahore, Pakistan, in March 2010.

After a graduate degree in international relations from Johns Hopkins University, she entered a prestigious government training program as a Presidential Management Fellow. She was assigned to the State Department in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, working on counternarcotics in Pakistan and Afghanistan. While at State, she decided to take the oral exam for the Foreign Service.

Becoming a Foreign Service officer is hyper-competitive—out of tens of thousands who may apply each year, only hundreds are selected. “We look for motivated individuals with sound judgment and leadership abilities who can retain their composure in times of great stress,” the State Department description of Foreign Service officers reads, “or even dire situations, like a military coup or a major environmental disaster.”

Partly because she was already working at the State Department, it was an unusually fast process for Berlow. She completed Foreign Service training and did a stint at the State Department’s Pakistan desk in Washington to prepare; then, she was “thrilled” to be assigned to Lahore.

As a political-economic officer, Berlow helped gather and synthesize information that senior Washington policymakers used to formulate U.S. economic and commercial policy toward Pakistan.

It was an atypical first assignment to be sure, Berlow says. Because of security concerns, it was a one-year posting, no family or pets allowed. “You’re really there to work and to work as hard as possible on the issues at hand,” she says.

Berlow knew “absolutely nobody” in Lahore, except for a handful of colleagues, until a chance meeting with a Pakistani man at a reception. After learning where she went to college, he said, “Oh, I have a niece who went to Wellesley. You need to meet her.” Berlow thought he must be mistaken, but when she visited his office later, his niece happened to be working there. She was, indeed, an alum who graduated just a few years after Berlow. “She was just a very, very key friend. … It was incredibly great to know that she was there, and that if I needed anything, there was kind of a friendly face to call on.”

She says she loved having the opportunity to run her own team so early in her career and get experience outside her area of expertise—from public affairs to meeting with women who received micro-scholarships to learn English. Because the consulate was small—about 12 to 15 Americans—Berlow was given a lot of autonomy and authority.

“One of the biggest things I started to learn during that assignment,” she says, “was just figuring out what works for you in the workplace.”

A Foreign Service career is not always easy—and often very difficult. Postings typically last two or three years, and then it’s time to pick up and move.

Berlow and Sison have each learned to live with—and even embrace—the unpredictability of a State Department career, developing rituals to make each new assignment feel more like home.

Sison brings her yoga mat to each new country. She’s connected with yoga communities in Iraq, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, and Haiti.

Berlow re-creates food traditions from the U.S. with new friends abroad. She has introduced her Japanese friends to backyard BBQs, complete with buffalo wings and ribs. In Pakistan, an American colleague taught her how to roast a turkey for the first time so they could host a big Thanksgiving meal. And with each assignment, she brings over a few things from the U.S. to her new home—a family photo album, favorite artwork, and a Costco bag of chocolate chips.

Sison’s two daughters, now 29 and 30, were raised during six of her assignments. They experienced both the excitement and difficulty of growing up with a parent in the Foreign Service.

When she was deputy chief of mission in Pakistan, Sison’s children were evacuated twice because of security concerns. “That was hard on the entire family,” she says, “and we all remember those days as very challenging indeed.”

‘It has always seemed a great gift to me that I’ve been able to connect with all groups, including the women who may be those heads of household, who may be the backbone of the economy … the voices of civil society, even if they don’t have the titles in the formal political system.’

Sison has also faced the challenges that come with forging a path as a woman in what was a male-dominated profession, often posted in male-dominated tribal or border areas. But, she says, being a woman came with great advantages that her male colleagues didn’t have. “It has always seemed a great gift to me that I’ve been able to connect with all groups, including the women who may be those heads of household, who may be the backbone of the economy … the voices of civil society, even if they don’t have the titles in the formal political system. They’ve been economic and political movers and shakers at the local and grassroots level.”

Women open up to her, and she’s able to “hear the unvarnished input from all sectors of society, including the women who may not have been in front of a microphone.”

Sison says being a mother also helped her connect to women in the communities she served. She remembers bringing her toddler and 18-month-old to a rural clinic on baby weighing day, part of a U.S.-funded maternal and child health program. “Having my little girls alongside certainly broke the ice as the women and our team discussed the importance of access to clean water and proper nutrition. We were all young mothers focused on keeping our little ones healthy.”

Sison deeply cherishes their family travels as well—from visiting the colorful markets of Abidjan to touring the South Indian ruins and Hami and the Golden Temple at Amritsar. “Those shared experiences have made us very close as a family, and I’m so proud of Allie and Jessica, my independent, brave, creative, and well-traveled daughters.”

Sison and Berlow are extremely grateful for the opportunities, connections, and lessons the Foreign Service has given them.

The unpredictability of her career has already taught Berlow a lesson she will carry as she continues her work life: “That it’s really kind of OK to not have things figured out.” After graduating from Wellesley, she felt as though she should have a life plan all laid out—what she would be doing in five, 10, or 20 years.

“It’s OK to not have a plan,” she says, “and it’s often good to not have a plan, because it keeps you open to things you might not otherwise do.”

If she had a plan, she says, “there is no way … I would have ended up in Pakistan and had as rich and rewarding an experience as I did have, for example.”

Berlow says the Foreign Service has also taught her another valuable lesson she wants other alumnae to hear: It’s fine to take a break. After Tokyo, she’s decided to go back to Washington, where she will work with the State Department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs. She’ll also spend time with family, hit the reset button, and get to know the U.S. a little better once again.

Reflecting on a dozen assignments abroad and nearly 40 years of service, Sison’s most satisfying professional experience transcends both geography and time. She is proud to have served as the connective tissue between all of her temporary homes—acting as a conduit for ideas and best practices from one country to another.

From labor issues or business development, “you’re able to take what you learn in Africa or what you learned in South Asia,” she says, “and apply it to the Middle East, what you’ve learned working with civil-society groups in south Lebanon and translate that to civil-society groups in the north of Haiti.”

“Those of us who choose a U.S. Foreign Service career,” she adds, “are privileged to serve as a bridge between the American people and the rest of the world.”

In many ways, that is the key to the U.S. Foreign Service. It’s not just about pushing the American message abroad, but bringing this whole, big world just a little closer together.

Wellesley Ambassadors

Many Wellesley women are serving or have served in the diplomatic corps of their nations around the world, with a number reaching ambassadorial status. Current and former ambassadors include:

Carolyn Patricia Alsup ’72, The Gambia

Carolina Barco ’73, Colombian Ambassador to the U.S.

Michele Thoren Bond ’75, Lesotho

Elinor Greer Constable ’55, Kenya

In-Ho Lee ’60, South Korean Ambassador to Russia and Finland

Julieta Valls Noyes ’84, Croatia

Anne Woods Patterson ’71, El Salvador, Colombia, Acting Ambassador to the U.N., Pakistan, Egypt

Leticia Ramos-Shahani ’51, Philippine Ambassador to Romania, Hungary, then-German Democratic Republic, Australia

Michele Sison ’81, Haiti, deputy representative to the U.N., Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates

Katherine Shirley ’64, Senegal

Pamela Spratlen ’76, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan

Pamela Hyde Smith ’67, Moldova

Karen Brevard Stewart ’73, Marshall Islands, Belarus, Laos

Janice Obuchowski ’73, World Radiocommunication Conference Ambassador

Carleen Lyden Walker ’77, Goodwill Maritime Ambassador

Amita Parashar Kelly ’06 is a senior digital editor at NPR.

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