Geneseo alumni with the U.S. State Department say understanding other experiences and perspectives is key.
By Kris Dreessen
As a foreign service officer in the U.S. State Department, George Sullivan ’07 served in Washington, D.C., and abroad, including Egypt, Brazil and Pakistan. His last overseas assignment was in Pakistan, where he managed an assistance program focused on law enforcement and gender programs.
“Serving abroad enabled me to work to find common ground across cultures,” he says, “and I was repeatedly inspired by the opportunity to find common cause in the process of solving complex problems.”
Sullivan, who now leads a team at the experience management company Qualtrics, is one of several Geneseo alumni who have or had careers with the U.S. Department of State.
The alumni come from diverse academic disciplines, professional backgrounds, and experience in volunteering or studying abroad as a student, but they all have universal beliefs about the need for global collaboration and perspective that are reinforced daily in their State Department roles. In those roles, they can address human rights or cultivate cultural understanding to advancing U.S. interests abroad, including economic well-being and defense capabilities.
While many positions within government change with elections, many State Department employees don’t, which provides a necessary level of professional continuity, says Jeff Koch, professor and chair of political science and international relations. Their responsibilities come with a need for balance in interests and diplomacy.
“Very good interpersonal skills are a must to cultivate professional relationships with staff and leaders from all over the world,” says Koch. “Even in a political organization, you’re still going to have different personalities and people with different goals and viewpoints. It’s really important to be able to network and work well with others and learn when you need to compromise. And when you are going to fight, you need to be able to do it in a skillful, tactful way.”
Reflecting on his decade of foreign service, Sullivan says building international relationships requires respect, mutual understanding and clear communication. To succeed, he says, staff and officers need to be adaptable, well-rounded problem-solvers with a keen interest in living and working abroad.
Koch says academic backgrounds provide knowledge, but vital interpersonal skills are developed in co-curricular and extracurricular activities. He has led students on annual trips to Washington, D.C., where they met alumni working in government, law and other fields. Students also practice diplomacy in the Model United Nations Club and the Political Affairs Club.
For alumni, opportunities at Geneseo to lead, give back and collaborate were a foundation on which to build a successful career in the State Department:
- Sullivan (economics) was a dedicated volunteer and leader, serving as a GOLD mentor and a member of the Geneseo Fire Department and participating in Livingston CARES’ first service trip to rebuild homes after Hurricane Katrina. “Geneseo’s emphasis on leadership development, service and community combined to provide me with a unique frame through which to engage with the world,” he says. “It definitely impacted my career choices.
- Chad Salitan ’09 (political science and international relations and economics) was the deputy senior coordinator in the Trafficking of Persons Office, leading data analysis and release of the international TIP report, which scores 180 countries on what leadership is (and isn’t) doing to acknowledge and combat human trafficking. In 2020, he shifted to the Department of Labor, monitoring and ensuring countries are adhering to U.S. free trade agreements and international standards for labor rights. At Geneseo, he spent a semester teaching English and working with members of a basket-making cooperative in El Sauce, Nicaragua. There, he says, “I saw a whole other world view of politics outside of the American system. It inspired my career.”
- Mark Simeone ’10 (international relations and political science) is a program analyst in the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs in Washington, D.C. He manages a program that provides foreign assistance to countries and nonprofit organizations working to improve budget transparency and government accountability. As a student, he studied abroad in Moscow, Russia, and then earned a prestigious U.S. State Department-sponsored Critical Language Scholarship for intensive language training in Astrakhan, Russia, after his junior year. He says he developed an interest in foreign languages and global affairs at Geneseo, and his time there inspired him to pursue a career in public service.
- Robert Viglietta ’12 (political science and sociology), a foreign affairs officer in the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs in Washington, D.C., studied abroad in Ankara, Turkey. He then earned a prestigious U.S. State Department-sponsored Critical Language Scholarship for intensive language training in Izmir, Turkey, after his junior year — despite Geneseo not offering Turkish language courses. “I cherish my time spent at Geneseo,” he says. “It was a place for me to come into my own. The confidence I built was thanks to Geneseo’s environment and opportunities.”
The alumni say their roles in the State Department allow them to play a part in world issues. Part of being a global citizen, says Simeone, is understanding that “there is mutual benefit to communicate and cooperate with each other to try to find solutions.”
Though there’s no one definition of a global citizen, say Viglietta and Simeone, it’s more important than ever to understand that we are all connected to what happens across the world. Increasingly, we need to integrate other people’s experiences and understanding into our own.
“A global citizen must understand that their actions can affect others, and the actions of others around the world can affect our own lives and livelihoods,” says Viglietta. “Ideally, individuals who want to be members of the global ecosystem will take actions in their own lives that will better the lives around them and around the globe. Without awareness, people will stay confined to their own realities and beliefs. Without action, global issues that affect billions of people will never be solved.”
Extra: Read about alumnus Chad Salitan’s work with the U.S. State Department fighting modern-day slavery https://scene.geneseo.edu/2020/03/the-global-fight-in-human-trafficking/