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Heeding the call

Veronica Whitney

These days, Stellingwerf, 39, of Eagle-Vail, gets paid to live abroad. After years traveling throughout England, Asia and Africa and working as a ski instructor and landscaper in the Vail Valley, Stellingwerf joined the U.S. Department of State for a career in foreign service in 2000.

For a few days, however, she’s back in the Vail Valley, the place she calls home, after completing her first overseas tour at the American Embassy in Georgetown, Guyana, where she was an economics officer.

During her visit, Stellingwerf, talked to students and the Vail/Eagle Valley Rotary Club about her foreign service career, how embassies function and public diplomacy. The talks are part of the Hometown Diplomats Program, started by Secretary of State Colin Powell, which aims to take advantage of foreign service officials’ trips home to talk to civic organizations, schools, local government offices, and local media about their work.

In the next few months, Stellingwerf, will go to Washington, D.C., to learn Italian. On March 2003, she’s scheduled to leave for her next assignement as an Administrative Officer in Naples, Italy.

Vail Daily: From ski instructor and landscaper to the foreign service, that’s quite a change in careers.

Judes Stellingwerf: “I’ve got a home and a mortgage and I realized that if I blow up my knee it would be very difficult to pay my mortgage. I also wanted to do something that was more mentally challenging for me. So I did an MBA and then took the foreign service exam because I always wanted to live abroad. I had to pass an oral and written exam. “

VD: How did you ended up in Guyana?

JS: When I was in Washington, D.C., they gave us a list of the openings and we had to choose our top 15 choices. Guyana was about 13th in my list. I got the lowest bid in my class (laughs).

VD: What was your work at the embassy?

JS: Everybody who joins the foreign service has to do one year of consular work. That means working in immigration services. The embassy in Guyana is small. We issued last year 16,000 holiday visas to come to the United States.

VD: Why is it important for the United States to maintain embassies abroad?

JS: In Guyana, for example, there are four reasons. Those are: to promote democracy (Guyana, a former British colony got independence in 1996); to promote economics; to learn about non-traditional threats – drugs, money laundering and terrorism. For example, Colombian drug lords are trying to get their product out of their country. There are 117 air strips in Guyana and one international airport. That means somebody is maintaining those airstrips in the jungle and we have reason to believe is the drug lords.

The fourth reason is for HIV/Aids prevention. Guyana has the second-highest rate of HIV/Aids in the Caribbean. There’s a large Guyanese population in New York City, in Miami and in California. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes that by sending two officers down to Guyana they may be able to educate the Guyanese and hopefully stop the spread of HIV/Aids.

VD: What changed at the embassy after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks?

JS: There was a heightened awareness and security in terrorism threats. We already had very tight security measures because of the 1998 Nairobi embassy bombing. However, after the attacks, e-mails and phone calls between the embassy and the U.S. Department of State stopped. We added extra security at the embassy and at our homes. We were also asked not to partake in any extracurricular activities. Things are back to normal now.

VD: How was life going from the richest country in the world to one of the poorest?

JS: Life was very good. The Guyanese people are very friendly; they are very accepting and very hospitable. There was no language barrier (they speak English). It’s very Caribbean in their outlook. That means life moves at a slower pace.

VD: So you don’t regret the change of careers?

JS: My first assignment was exciting. I dealt with policies and people who otherwise I would have never dealt with in the Vail Valley. Because the embassy in Guyana was a small post – 22 people – I dealt on a daily basis with the ambassador. That wouldn’t happen in Mexico.

VD: What have you learned working for the foreign service?

JS: I’ve learned the different aspects of foreign policy. By maintaining an open dialogue with the Guyanase government, we can help to influence their policy.

VD: Why does the U.S. need to have influence in other countries?

JS: We need to be there to promote their economy, which will promote a stable democratic society.

VD: Is your goal to become an ambassador?

JS: Yes, that’s my ultimate goal. I have never been fulfilled in a career and presented with so many challenges as in this one. There is a patriotic aspect to this as well. I enjoy serving my country. Until I got in the foreign service I was not very sure why it’s so necessary to have embassies around the world. It is good for people to know where their taxes go. I would recommend this career. I need to tell those who are interested to to get a good education and learn some languages.

For more information on a career in the foreign service, visit http://www.state.gov.


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