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Diplomat Julie Ruterbories reveals insider experiences with foreign service

Julie Ruterbories, is a senior foreign service officer for the U.S. Department of State and is currently a diplomat in residence based at Duke. She is one of 16 diplomats in residence in the United States and serves the Southern Mid-Atlantic region, which she called “happy hunting grounds” for talent. She has worked as a consular officer in East and West Europe. The Chronicle’s Raisa Chowdhury sat down with Ruterbories to speak about her experiences representing the U.S. around the world and recruiting new public servants.

The Chronicle: What is your job description currently and how has it evolved through the years?

Julie Ruterbories: In some ways, being a diplomat in residence is sort of a culmination for me after 22 years of serving as a foreign service officer. It’s a little bit like having been able to walk the walk, I now hope to entice others to consider this as a career path….

When I was a student I would say I was very fortunate. I knew already this was something I wanted to do. I had the very good fortune of growing up overseas as well as in the United States and had a sense of international affairs and diplomacy and the role that communication plays in creating a stable world. Not everyone is as fortunate as I am and so bringing the opportunities of the state department to a wider audience is something the state department recognized many years ago. We know there are people all across the United States not just on East coast or West coast or just elite institutions that have a lot to contribute….

TC: What countries have you been posted in?

JR: When I came in 1992 I came in as a Russian speaker. I had even lived in Moscow when it was still the Soviet Union. When I joined, the Soviet Union had just collapsed. Because of my language skills, that put me at the top of the list to be assigned in a new country that had been a part of the Soviet Union. So I found myself in Kyrgyzstan….

The primary role of a consular officer is to assist American citizens in distress. I found myself on the end of a very long phone connection to keep a woman informed of what was happening, in this case, to her husband who had been killed in a plane crash. He was a very highly decorated Vietnam era pilot. We arranged to get his body back to Colorado…. That’s one of my earliest experiences and one that stayed with me.

I went on to Azerbaijan where I helped assist Americans when there were military coups. Then I worked in Washington D.C.’s operations center, which is kind of like their center of command, and then on to London, which is a very large consular section with hundreds of thousands of British travelers. They don’t need a visa if they’re going to Disney world, but if they’re coming to work or college students and also performers. We got to see the likes of Mick Jagger and U2. They would need to obtain visas to come visit the United States…

Then Macedonia and Kosovo. That took me back to definitely more hands on assisting American citizens. In some cases these were Americans who had been arrested. There were a number of young men who left Yugoslavia and didn’t go back. In some cases they became [U.S.] citizens, became legal residents and now 10, maybe 20 years later, they’ve gone back and they got arrested and they’re like, “I’m American” but they say, “You failed to fulfill your military service to Yugoslavia,” which of course didn’t exist anymore. They were being treated as draft dodgers even though Yugoslavia didn’t exist anymore, and it was Macedonia now. I visited them in jail and made sure they had a lawyer and got [Macedonian officials] to revisit the law. As a result of our discussion, these individuals were released from jail and had their cases resolved to the point that if anyone else found themselves in this situation, the law had been corrected.

After Macedonia and Kosovo, I came back to D.C. and worked in a liaison office. I had an office up on Capitol Hill and regularly briefed visitors.

After that I worked as chief of staff in the Bureau of Consular Affairs and then Amsterdam, Netherlands where I was consul general from 2009 to 2012 which was a really wonderful opportunity. And then I came here and will finish in July. In September, I will be the next consul general in Bogota, Colombia.

When I joined 22 years ago it was my objective to go to South America. It has taken 22 years, but I have finally gotten my dream of going to South America.

TC: Does it usually take so long to get to where you want to go?

JR: I had this idea that I wanted to go to South America, but I have no regrets on where I went. I also met the most amazing man in Kyrgyzstan and we will celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary in September. We always bid on places that we could get two positions together…. We could have made it happen if we had really wanted to, but there were these equally amazing opportunities.

TC: What’s your favorite part of the job?

JR: I’m able to look back and know that I’ve made a difference. That I’ve touched somebody’s life and know that I made a difference.

TC: What’s your least favorite part of the job?

JR: It has its challenges, without doubt. Packing up everything you own and moving every two or three years is definitely not an easy thing. Adjusting to new environments can be challenging, but for me that has always been exciting. It’s very hard to say goodbye—and you say a lot of goodbyes. You also get to say a lot of hellos. You’re always meeting new people, and to me in many ways it’s been this wonderful adventure and I really like that part of it…

Nobody joins the federal government because of the salary that’s being offered. That’s not our draw, but rather if you want to be a part of something…

It’s great being a part of an institution that’s been around since Thomas Jefferson, who was the first secretary of state. The first female secretary of state was Madeleine Albright and I did my thesis at Georgetown under Madeleine Albright. I met her as Ambassador Albright when I was working in the command center that I mentioned. When Bill Clinton appointed her, I got to greet her, “Hello Secretary Albright.” I have served three female secretaries of state and two African-American secretaries of state, so Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. Without a doubt, three of the most remarkable women of the last 20th century, really terrific to be a part of that type of organization.

TC: Why’d you join? Did you have any anxieties about it?

JR: I was 26 going on 27 when I joined. I was a little surprised that I was one of the younger officers. My class had 41 people in it and the youngest person was 22, so I was not the youngest and the oldest turned 50 during our orientation class. I remember being so surprised. I had always thought I was the weirdo in the bunch. That I was the “one of these things is not like the other” because of my strong interest in international affairs and foreign languages and so when I joined the state department, I expected to be surrounded by people just like me. People join the foreign service for such a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. That’s one of the things that I find so remarkable about the organization. There’s not any topic that we’re not interested in on the global level…

Disciplines include psychology, political science, environmental science, energy. There’s so much that the state department is a part of. I was truly pleased that the state department is not just made up of people just like me.

TC: What is the craziest thing you’ve ever seen or experienced as a foreign service officer?

JR: In Azerbaijan during one of those coups, I had gotten an American to the airport and was not trying to drive back to the city. I was driving myself at around three in the morning and the car had diplomatic plates on it. I was stopped at a checkpoint and there was this kid who could not have been more than 16-years old, who was pointing a Kalashnikov at me and asked me to get out to the car. And I spoke Russian and a little bit of Azeri and I said that I would not be getting out of the car and asked to see his supervisor and he asked to see my identity card. So I pulled out my new identity card that had been issued just a week and a half before. One of the things that had just happened was the president had changed the official language from Russian to Azeri and all official documents had to be written in Azeri and he had also changed the script Azeri was written in. It had been written in the Arabic script and it had been made into the Turkish alphabet. I handed over my ID card to this 16-year old who is still trying to show that he’s in charge and he’s looking at the ID car and looking at me and he was holding it upside down. The supervisor comes and asked me who I was and shoved the 16-year old aside and told me that I should get home and get off the roads. I told him that if he let me go, I would. That was definitely one of the more nervous moments.

That moment of the 16-year old holding the ID card upside down really coalesced a lot of things for me.

TC: Have you noticed any trends among Duke grads joining foreign service?

JR: This year, we had the largest number of Duke students to apply and more than 30 have been offered positions as either full time or alternates. That’s the largest number in the state. You guys even beat out [the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill]. The variety of people who have come to see me are interested in the Middle East, Latin America, all kinds of things. I’m tremendously impressed by people who tell me about their DukeEngage experience. That’s a wonderful program. One of the types of thing that lead very well to the types of things the state department is looking for. Just that you have that word right there, engage. We seek to engage other countries.

TC: Where do you want to go next? What’s left on your bucket list?

JR: Bogota is actually a big, big chunk of my bucket list. Very happy to have that. It’s always been my dream to be posted in Budapest. I studied Hungarian when I was in grad school and went to Karl Marx University. My husband and I decided to open the last 20 or 30 boxes that had come out of storage and I found all my Columbia University papers and all my Hungarian stuff was in there and boy, did that bring back a lot of memories. Budapest is still on my lists. Probably not going to happen but it’s on my dream list.

TC: Why won’t it happen?

JR: I’ve been lucky that I’ve risen to the level of consul. The only position that remains open that I would be qualified for is ambassador which is often a personal friend of the president. The role of ambassador is to be the personal representative of the president and I think it’s been a number of years since we’ve had a professional diplomat be the ambassador in Hungary.

TC: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

JR: I very much hope that Duke students will continue to take full advantage of the [diplomat in residence] and access my successor in any way that they can.

Richard Jaworski, management officer for the Department of State, is expected to replace Ruterbories in the Fall.