Who, What, When
Forging a more global Skidmore Expanding international perspectives for every student
Here from afar Students with roots in other countries give, and get, new insights
Pencils and passports Even brief travel seminars can transform learning
To not forget CNN's Arwa Damon '99 reports from Iraq
Foreign postings Expat aumni share tips and tales
by Helen S. Edelman '74
Skidmore College is all over the map—or at least its alumni are. Take Oskar Ibru ’81, who ran for office in Nigeria and leads the Ibru Organisation of Niger with brothers Peter ’83 and Emmanuel ’84; or Anthea Zervos ’02, who helped shape and conduct the reconciliation commission after the Sierra Leone civil war. Alumni who returned to work in their home countries include TV and animation producer Yang Wang ’99 in Beijing, international commerce specialist Nigar Goksel ’97 in Istanbul, bank advisor Kathy Uribe Echavarria ’94 in Santiago, and special-ed teacher Pritha Mani ’04 in New Delhi. Still others were all-American college kids who became expats to forge careers or follow spouses. And many have US roots but a broader reach, like Jessyca Dudley ’06 and Janet Littlefield ’98, raising funds to support a school in Ghana and an orphanage in Malawi, or Ben and Laura Moliterno Bressler ’84 and Mike Messick ’85, who lead cultural and eco-tourism trips all around the world.
As Skidmore expands its global relationships, in the classrooms and out in the field, more alumni will be more internationally active than ever. Just this year thirteen brand-new grads will teach English in China, and three young alumni won Fulbright awards to continue their studies: Kyle Carey ’08 and Katie Lasky ’08 in Canada and Austria, and Andrea Bergart ’06 in Ghana.
Scope Quarterly got in touch with Kareen Thorpe ’02 and a few other alumni working abroad, to hear about their cross-cultural adventures. The details varied, but one piece of advice was universal: It’s crucial to open one’s mind and heart to new experience.
Thorpe is a State Department foreign-service officer. She was sworn into office by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2006 and posted to Nairobi, Kenya, as the ambassador’s special assistant. Now she is the embassy’s chief of American citizenship services, handling visas for people seeking entry to the US. She also assists Americans living in Kenya in case they run into trouble. For example, she explains, “If an American dies here, I arrange to transport the remains back home. It’s a good feeling to know I can help families that depend on me.” She adds, “I love serving my country and defending the Constitution.”
Thorpe’s career began with a State Department fellowship while she was a graduate student in international affairs at American University, and also with an internship at the Office of the US Global AIDS Coordinator. Those experiences led to work at the US embassy in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. While there, Thorpe completed a year of diplomatic training, including learning the Kiswahili language in preparation for her current work. She got to witness the first democratic elections in the DRC in forty-five years, although the thrill was soured by violence erupting the evening before the poll results were announced.
“I could stand on my patio and see the soldiers holding their guns and ducking, ready to fire. Mortar shells, gunfire, and rockets from the tanks shook my apartment building,” she recalls. She spent three nights in her apartment’s panic room. “I was secluded for safety during an event that took too many lives,” she says. “I was able to grab food and water in between rounds, but the shooting would always start again before I was finished.” Finally, “the fighting stopped just as I ran out of food rations.” She was dismayed again last December, when fighting broke out anew.
She believes “the US has made great efforts to encourage peace between the warring parties.” Despite those strides, though, “too many people in the world still know what it’s like to be persecuted or physically threatened because of ethnicity. Every day, I adjudicate visas for Eritreans who must leave their families behind because they have been jailed for their religious beliefs, and for Somalis who have lived their entire lives as refugees.”
Still, Thorpe finds great pleasure in using her language skills “to communicate in a new culture—and bargain at the market.” Bargaining prowess aside, shopping itself is a trial, she reports. “The Congo has no malls. Kenya does, but there’s not much to buy.” She also confides she is unrequited in her cravings for McDonald’s fries and Chicken McNuggets.
On balance, Thorpe is gratified by her life and work. She says life abroad is lived most fully by those who learn about the culture before they travel: “Take time,” she advises, “and develop patience, understanding, and endurance.”