An interview with Alexandra Tenny
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a Foreign Service officer?
A: I was introduced to the Foreign Service life when I was very young. Every embassy around the world has a program called Summer Hire Program for children of employees in the embassy. I worked in the consular section as a high school student, and the idea grew over time as a natural thing I knew I wanted to do. I also returned to Damascus to work as an intern with what was then the U.S. Information Agency. I took the exam to see if that path would work—and it worked!
Q: What has been the most interesting part of your posts as a Foreign Service officer?
A: The variety of work I’ve been involved in and the impact I’ve had. Everything from seeing quotes from a speech I wrote for an ambassador used in the local news programs to conceptualizing and executing a multinational judicial conference and briefing a U.S. Supreme Court Justice on his role and participation.
Q: Briefly describe the differences between a political officer and consular officer.
A: They are two separate tracks (and most recently I have been a narcotics officer). A consular officer’s bread and butter work is processing visas, processing people immigrating to the U.S., reuniting families, and assisting American citizens living in the host country. A political officer is more of a journalist. They are expected to develop an understanding of the host country, its issues, and its relevance to the U.S., and reporting back to Washington on those issues, providing the local context and point of view, as well as offering analysis for the policy makers in D.C. They also provide spot reports as results are coming up in developing events such as major protests, the fall of the government, or conflict. A political officer also assists Washington in drafting major reports to Congress, such as the Human Rights report, the Trafficking in Persons report, and the Religious Freedom report, among others. They place observers in various points around the country so our policy makers in Washington have a full arsenal of information of what they need. It’s more writing, whereas a consular officer deals with the adjudication of U.S. law.
Q: From consular officer to political officer to narcotics affairs program officer is quite a leap. How does a transition like that happen?
A: A narcotics affairs program officer is considered an inter-functional position, and the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Bureau deals with a variety of issues related to rule of law, judicial reform, etc. The INL Bureau handles a large budget and works to implement programs throughout the globe aimed at building institutions, law enforcement structures, and addressing transnational crime. They look for people with all sorts of backgrounds: folks who are creative in terms of developing assistance programs, skills in people management, resource management, and strong language skills. It is resource-management heavy. Even as a mid-level officer, I manage millions of dollars across a broad range of programs. I’ve gone from reporting to developing programs and managing funds. It is interesting and exciting, and I feel like I have made a real impact through these programs.
Q: How will your duties change from Peru to your new post in Colombia?
A: One aspect of INL work that I personally like is the job necessitates rolling up your sleeves and getting out of the office. I had the opportunity to work with young adults and communities in the inner city of Lima and also travel throughout the country into areas traditionally known as narco-trafficking areas or terrorist controlled areas. INL work demands strong language skills, as the majority of those we work with, such as the police, community leaders in rural areas, etc., have had little exposure to English. Getting out of the office and developing strong language skills are highly important to effective public diplomacy. While in Peru, we had traveled to a very remote area to run a training program (we had to fly into a grass airstrip then take a helicopter to the town). I was chatting with several of the villagers, holding the many babies being thrust into my arms, and getting to know the community members. Afterwards, one of my staff asked why I let them touch me and hug me, why I insisted on spending one on one time with them instead of sitting at the head table the whole time. I tried to explain to her that no matter what we give this community, what they are going to remember about the U.S. is the interaction they had with a U.S. diplomat who came to their village. I truly believe not only is this real public diplomacy, but it is the best way to “win hearts and minds.” We do more service to the U.S. as diplomats through people to people contact than anything else.
Q: What aspects of your duties change from Peru to your new post in Colombia?
A: In Peru, I was running what is considered “soft programs.” I was managing demand reduction, anti-money laundering, prosecutorial and judicial training, and the International Law Enforcement Academy—focused more on institutional programs. In Colombia, I’ll be managing the Manual Eradication Program and working with Washington to shape our overall eradication policy. One of the primary functions of the U.S. in both these countries is eradication of the coca plant, where we are physically pulling these plants out of the ground. In Colombia we do what is known as manual eradication and aerial spray eradication. The U.S. funds aerial sprays of the coca fields, and the Colombian government funds the manual eradication, those who are going out manually and pulling it out. It is dangerous work given the often aggressive posture of the FARC, land mines, etc. Often spray planes are fired upon as they spray a field. However, the manual eradication is where they experience the heaviest casualties. The coca fields are mined with IEDs buried under the plant so that when the plant is pulled, the mine goes off. The civilian eradicators (who are protected by Colombian National police) often come under attack when they’re working in the fields or walking around the fields. The U.S. provides assistance funds for their security force protection of the manual eradicators and programs to assist in the continuation of the program (such as asset seizure of the land where coca is being grown, etc). I’ll be working with the Colombian military and the Colombian police to improve the capabilities of their police and their military to provide protection for the manual eradicators, to better conduct post-blast investigations after an IED explodes, and work with the prosecutors in seizing the land used for growing coca and producing cocaine.
Q: Have your experiences in Model UN as a student been helpful in your career?
A: Oh, absolutely—and I tell people that all the time. First, you have to develop interpersonal skills, and it’s something they test for in the oral exams for the State Department. MUN gives students the opportunity to understand give and take, to work with different personalities, to build consensus, and those are skills I continually use not just with my foreign counterparts but within the embassy as well. One of the main reasons I got this job in Colombia was because of the skill I developed in Peru working across a variety of U.S. agencies and building interagency cooperation. The State Department doesn’t work in a vacuum; we work in collaboration with the military, with USAID, and others. We deal with agency cultures, individual personalities, and you have to build consensus so you can create a mission-wide policy or policy recommendations for the ambassador that everybody agrees on and that meets each individual agencies’ priorities. Just like in MUN, you’re trying to build up a resolution and make sure each country’s priorities are in there—you have to learn give and take. Those are really important skills to use throughout a career. I also use my MUN experience in the literal sense. In both my position in Peru and in my position in Colombia I worked directly with the UN office. I’m grateful for my understanding of the UN gained from my MUN experience, because I think it helped me work with them more effectively.
Q: What aspects of your academic experience at the Kennedy Center (or BYU) have you had the opportunity to use in becoming or being a Foreign Service officer?
A: For me, one of the most useful intro classes was Chad Emmett’s political geography class. In general, what the Kennedy Center gave me, in addition to the academic foundation the State Department looks at and values, was the real-world experience and exposure that sets you apart from other applicants. For example, I did a study abroad to southeastern Turkey, the intercultural outreach program, which built up multimedia and presentation skills for me, became important as a program officer and as a briefer. The kind of student the Kennedy Center produces is a student who’s aware, informed, intellectually curious about the world, isn’t afraid to get out there and meet people, and building the ability to adapt to cultures, understand cultures, tackle difficult languages, etc. I think the Kennedy Center produces those students in a unique way, and the State Department recognizes that as a great formula for a successful FSO.
Q: What was it about political geography that was powerful to you?
A: It opened my mind to combining the academic with the practical. I wrote a report on the Uighurs of China for my final paper. I internalized the influence of resources (not just oil) on modern-day conflict. Understanding the basis of conflict—be it water, borders, history—you have to remember those things when you’re dealing with even a very modern society. People have long memories, and if you understand that about a culture, it gives you the ability to understand why you’re getting assistance here, or why your counterpart will think a certain way, or why they won’t just do it, even if it’s so logical to you, but to them it’s not. The class gave me an opportunity to think deeper on some of these issues and how important they are.
Q: You’ve lived in Jamaica, Latvia, and Peru. How do you immerse yourself in the cultures?
A: You have to get out and walk around. It’s very easy to become comfortable with the embassy and the American community. In some cultures, it’s easier to make local friends. I’ve always been grateful for my husband’s job outside the embassy. We’ve used that to expand our network and our friends. He’s also a professional rugby player, so that got us into a very interesting network of people in Latvia. Some of the easiest ways to immerse yourself is not only to travel together as a family but little things like walking the aisles of the grocery store and trying new products that may seem at first unidentifiable. Another advantage for an FSO is the large force of local staff who work with us in the embassy. They are invaluable in learning about the local culture quickly. In countries where the Church is large, it provides many cultural opportunities. In Peru for example, we went to the local ward, and my daughters went to the local school. I think that by immersing your family and your private life into the local culture was not only very socially enriching, but professionally I felt like I came to know the country a lot faster. For example, at my daughters’ school, attended by children of upper-middle class Peruvians, we found a group of parents who were all our age, all the children were friends so there was an abundance of birthday parties, special occasions, school events, etc. It was always a wonderful opportunity to ask them about local politics or their opinions on issues of particular interest, which enabled me to hear what that class of Peruvians thought as opposed to the elites or the poor. The tourist haunts also provide rich opportunities. We went to Machu Picchu, and the local guide told us how none of the tourist money stays in the surrounding towns but all goes back to Lima. We went to the jungle and saw our four year old make friends with children who didn’t speak Spanish yet (they speak their local language until they go to school and learn Spanish). I conversed with the tribe, and the leader’s wife asked me if I could hire her daughter as my maid. I realized how vulnerable these tribes and groups are to human trafficking.
Q: What has surprised you most about being a Foreign Service officer?
A: I don’t know, that’s an interesting question.
Q: How do you balance career, marriage, and motherhood?
A: I couldn’t do it without my husband being a true partner. I outsource the cleaning; I outsource the laundry. One advantage when you live overseas is you can hire help that is very affordable. I also have an amazing husband who is a contractor with AID, and he follows me. He’s an attorney by trade and has done some fascinating work every place we’ve been. For example, in Jamaica he worked with an organization working in the prisons for falsely-convicted felons; in Latvia, he worked for a Danish law firm; in Peru, he was hired as a contractor with the USAID labor and trade development office, and he’ll continue that in Colombia. I think it’s the same challenges every working mom has. For me it was about establishing boundaries with my bosses and letting them know what my priorities are but also sharing the burden in the office and supporting other parents in their desire to put family first. Some bosses are easier to work with than others on this issue, but I think that is true across professions. With the State Department, it is a traditionally more male-dominated profession, but that has changed. Now we have a new generation of female officers coming in who are married when they come in to professional spouses and already have children or plan on having children early during their career. Whereas our sisters who came before us waited until they were further along in their careers and much older. It has been fascinating for me to watch the State Department handle that. It’s like taking an aircraft carrier and turning it 180 degrees—it takes a while, but they’re getting there. The State Department is trying to be very family friendly, and I think they are. They provide a lot of care for families, but the phenomenon of the female worker is that we want to have babies, and be home with those babies, so they’re adjusting, and I think they’re doing a good job adjusting. We also have a union that advocates for us to the State Department, so I think that’s taken on a lot of these issues as well. And it’s not just the moms; we have dads coming into the Foreign Service who aren’t just all about the job. They want to be fathers and want to be at home. The State Department is adjusting to the demand for a work and life balance. And now with technology, I can work almost entirely from my Blackberry some days, which offers me a great degree of flexibility and time management options. We have a lot more tools available to us that make it easier to work from home, to work on the road, you can work in traffic. In Lima’s traffic, it took an hour to get anywhere, so that’s not time wasted anymore. I’m not forced to stay late to make up that time at the end of the day anymore, because I can work on my Blackberry. All of these amazing tools make it much easier for us to find balance. It is a daily challenge but not impossible.
Q: Narcotics seems like a scary thing to do in any environment, but Perhaps Colombia carries an added stigma of being a very violent place when it comes to drug cartels. Have you faced danger previously, and do you expect to be in danger in Colombia?
A: There’s always danger, because you’re going to areas of the country, for example in Peru, where a terrorist presence is still active. There’s a debate whether or not they’re still political, but they are still active and involved in the narcotics trade. There are areas in the country where we were not permitted to go; there are certain areas where I traveled with a security escort. Where our eradicators operate, they are attacked, but that’s not where we go as FSOs. Have I ever felt in danger, no. The machine gun mounted on the side of the helicopter helped give me a sense of security. In Colombia, we’ll see. The security situation in Colombia is improving; there aren’t as many restrictions on diplomats in terms of moving around the city. There are places you can drive to outside the city that you couldn’t go to before, so that’s an encouraging thing for me. Out in the field it’s still very dangerous, but it’s not really necessary for me to go to those places. The scary thing to me is that the people I work with and know and value as friends do go into those areas. They do face danger for doing work we have asked them to do. For example, one of the projects I monitored was called “Creating a Culture of Legality,” and it was in a part of Peru with zero state presence and heavy terrorist presence. We hired an NGO to go in, start softening the ground, and start working with the people toward alternative lifestyles—trying to help them see they didn’t need to grow coca in order to make a life for themselves. One of my main promoters had her house surrounded and was threatened to be burned alive inside, because the local drug organization didn’t like her anti-drug message. She was a wonderful and dedicated person but understandably quit the project. That was heavier on my heart than me going out there, because she was in danger working on a project I developed and funded. We ask people to do these things for us, because we want to make their country better. They do it, because they believe in a better future; they believe in fighting the drug trade and put themselves at risk. It’s very humbling to work with these people who are doing things that are mutually beneficial to both our countries. They don’t get paid large amounts, they don’t have to do it, but they do it because they believe it is the right thing to do. You meet some amazing people who are doing very difficult work.
Q: Are there any experiences from your posts you can share with us?
A: My older daughter, MaKayla, is fluent in Spanish. She’s four and sounds like a Peruvian. We’ll go to Colombia, and she’ll have three more years of Spanish, and my baby, Arianna, will have the same opportunity. That’s going to open so many doors for them to be near-native speakers. (I speak Spanish as well as my husband but not nearly as fluently as my daughter). It’s an investment really, they’ll have that for their whole lives and always use it. I’m also grateful the lifestyle offers a way to expose our children to different types of people, which provides us the opportunity to show them all are children of God. The ward where we are living is very, very poor. Families of four are living on less than a dollar a day, but they are some of the most beautiful people you’ll ever meet in your entire life. My daughter attends a very small Primary with children from some of the poorest families. One particular little guy had one pair of pants, and they were held up by a rope, but he and his mother came every week. MaKayla doesn’t see his poverty; she doesn’t think he’s strange because he has ratty clothes. She sees him as another amigo she gets to play with at Church. I’m thankful for the experiences I’ve offered her because I serve as a diplomat in foreign countries. She’s made friends with ROUS (rodents of unusual size); one of them was named Charlie—she became friends with this big rodent that followed her around in the jungle. There are a lot of sacrifices you make in not having your children in the states and the opportunities that provides, but I think it balances out. At the end of the day, I’m humbled by the opportunity to serve my country, to play a role in the growth of developing countries, to be involved in combating international crime, and I’m so thankful for the opportunities to enrich my children’s lives by exposing them to the world.