Last autumn, my family and I packed our bags and boxes for our second international move since leaving BYU in 1995—this time to Accra, Ghana. This is our first posting with the U.S. Foreign Service and so far, we love it. I can’t think of a job I’d rather have. And while the path from BYU to the State Department has been anything but direct, my experiences at the Kennedy Center clearly laid the groundwork for my current happy career choice.
I returned from my mission to Catania, Italy, in 1992, full of desire to delve into the roots of Christianity. I wanted to study Hebrew and Greek, maybe get a PhD in archaeology or ancient religion. Not sure exactly what path to follow, I enrolled in a course on Judaism and Islam taught that semester by Dr. James Toronto.
I loved the course and the instructor. By the end of the semester, I had declared myself a Near Eastern Studies major and begun to endure the endless jokes about what that kind of degree might be good for and where, exactly, one might find the near east. I studied Hebrew, both modern and biblical. I read the Qu’ran. I took the introduction to anthropology course. But a class on much more current events pulled me firmly back into the present and refocused my attention on a lifelong love: politics.
The catalyst was Dr. David Galbraith’s Arab–Israeli conflict course. I was fascinated by the interaction between religion and politics, by the way that thousands of years of history so directly impact a current problem in international relations. Galbraith had each class member research the point of view of one of the factions in the conflict and represent that perspective in class discussions. In the course of a few short weeks, I turned myself into a radical Palestinian activist—at least during the class debates.
He carefully steered our conversations with readings and lectures, and the result was an excellent, balanced view of the conflict. Very few classroom exercises have ever more effectively broadened my horizons or taught me more about critical thinking, and the role of history in modern politics. I came in with a ridiculously simplified view of the conflict and left with an appreciation for the depth of the problems and the issues at stake.
In my junior year, the Kennedy Center provided me with the most formative experience of my college career. Thanks to some creative thinking by Dr. Arnold Green, he suggested that I find a professor associated with the Kennedy Center who was doing work that interested me, and I managed to land a job as an undergraduate research assistant.
In all, I worked for three different professors during my last two years at BYU. Dr. Victor Ludlow taught me what it means to be a research assistant—a skill that came in handy in later years. I graded papers, checked citations, dug up articles, and checked facts. He spent many hours talking with me and giving me advice about my studies. It was a rich and rewarding experience.
The following summer, I worked for Dr. Galbraith on a project involving the history of the BYU Jerusalem Center. As I scanned newspaper clippings and read letters and journal entries, I learned that he had been involved from the inception of the center and had played an important role in its construction—a truly monumental task. I was also privileged to do some minor research and proofreading for the book Jerusalem: The Eternal City, which he was writing together with Professors Kelly Ogden and Andrew Skinner. Like Dr. Ludlow, Dr. Galbraith shared freely of his time and talents.
In my final year, I immersed myself in Arabic, and as part of that immersion, I went to work for Dr. Kirk Belnap, one of my Arabic teachers. Together with Dr. Dil Parkinson, he worked hard to help me make some sense of the language. They remain the best language teachers I have ever had, and I have since heard them spoken of with respect by students and professors from universities around the country.
Since leaving BYU, I have built on my experiences at the Kennedy Center. Thanks to the support of the faculty there, in the summer of 1995, I receive a Fulbright fellowship to study Arabic in Amman, Jordan, for one year. I was pleased to find that Dr. Toronto and his family were also in Amman at the Church’s cultural center there. The Toronto’s welcomed my young family into their home repeatedly, providing friendship and support to us as we adjusted to living overseas. Toronto continued to act as a mentor while I applied to graduate school and made decisions about the future.
After our return to the U.S. in 1996, my career took a detour from the international scene. I did finally finish a PhD in politics last spring from the University of Virginia, but my focus was American government, with only a minor in comparative politics. In the meantime, I worked as a project director for two nonprofits, both focused on improving the quality of U.S. political campaigns.
In those jobs I was delighted to come into occasional contact with Professor Richard Davis, who taught the only upper-division course in American government that I took at BYU. Though not at the Kennedy Center, he played a key role in my academic development. In his course on the media and politics, I wrote a paper on the portrayal of Arabs in the mainstream press. Davis encouraged me to do some additional work on the research and then spent several hours of his time coauthoring a new paper based on the original for submission to the Northeastern Political Science Association’s annual meeting. To my utter amazement, the paper was accepted and he helped secure some of the funding for my trip to Rhode Island to present the paper. By working with me to carefully craft and refine the proposal, carry out the research, and professionally present the results, he gave me an excellent preparation for graduate school. When it came time to propose papers to academic conferences in graduate school, I had a leg up on my colleagues—I had done it before.
I now find that my path has brought me back to international politics. In every respect, I believe that BYU and the Kennedy Center prepared me for graduate school and now for my career in the Foreign Service. And who knows? Maybe all that Arabic will come in handy one day.