My Mentor: The Greatest Symbol of US Diplomacy and International Affairs

One has many teachers in life. Professors come and go, sometimes getting lost among the myriad of faces and voices during our time in university. Some are remembered for their boring lectures, others for their difficult exams. Every so often however, one challenges, dares and even scares you into recognizing your full human potential, all while extending kindness and nourishing your spirit, that one would be the incomparable Ambassador Elam-Thomas.

I will never forget the first time my friends saw her walking across campus, her freshly-braided hair radiating wisdom, her perfectly-chosen outfit defining professionalism, stately demeanor exuding the essence of greatness—a true dignitary. A fellow student pointed to ask, “Who is that lady? She looks so regal…” I proudly turned and said “that woman happens to be Ambassador Elam-Thomas of the Global Perspectives Office and my professor of Honors Diplomacy”.  I was so proud to be able to claim her as my favorite and most inspiring professor. Today I am happy to call her my mentor, the person whose had the most influence on me both personally and professionally throughout my time at UCF.

Ambassador Elam-Thomas challenges her students, forcing them out of their comfort zones and into the unknown-always with a purpose and a plan. During the time that I took her Honors Diplomacy class I was heavily involved in the UCF College Democrats, having been one of the core campaigners on campus during the 2008 election. One day, she assigns me the task of taking a harsh stance on the issue of President Obama’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.  As his number one fan and supporter, I found myself suddenly conducting hours of research backing a position she knew I would never advocate in real life.

That assignment was only one of the many ways Ambassador challenged us and forced us to deeply consider all sides of an issue. She was teaching us an important lesson for life, always think before you speak and try to truly understand the opposing sides—whether or not you agree is a different matter. 

Ambassador Elam-Thomas is perhaps the greatest symbol of US Diplomacy and International Affairs that I will ever experience. Her penchant for teaching, nurturing, and fostering her students demonstrates her desire to help create a brighter future for our country. Everyone has something to learn from her, regardless of whether one hopes to work in diplomacy or not. She is a symbol of hope for all those lucky enough to meet and be influenced by her.

-Fedorah Philippeaux * Dual MA Peace and Conflict Studies 2016 * University of Kent / University of Marburg

Ambassador Harriet L. Elam Thomas…Lighthouse to My Uncertain Seas

In the early days of my undergraduate experience at the University of Central Florida (UCF), I was searching for the words that would become my story, be it my career aspirations, friends and relationships to cultivate, and places in the world to learn about and discover. Little did I know that I would find the lighthouse to my uncertain seas in Ambassador Harriet Elam-Thomas. Her mentorship and lessons in humility, grace, and humanity – the foundations of effective diplomacy – have guided me throughout my academic and professional careers, and shaped me to be the person I am today. Her story is relatable to anyone who yearns to explore the world as a citizen diplomat, is interested in a career in foreign affairs, is willing to understand the importance of positively engaging individuals from other countries and cultures, and finds value in celebrating diversity in public service.

I first met Ambassador Harriet Elam-Thomas in her Diplomacy course at UCF. I enrolled in the course during my first year of study after learning that a career Ambassador was teaching the course. At the time, I was only beginning to explore the world of international affairs, and the prospect of learning what exactly is diplomacy from someone whom had to practice it professionally gave me the kind of grounding I was in desperate search of amidst my other courses filled with esoteric readings of political theories.

When she entered the classroom on the first day, the only word that could come to my mind was gravitas. She walked with an air of refined dignity – not one that was demanded or expected, but rather one that came naturally and compelled me to reflect it in how I address her and myself. She started her introductory remarks not with a biographical account of her accomplishments, which are indeed many and merit any person’s commendation, but by asking her students how we would define ‘diplomacy.’ A few brave souls offered their thoughts, and the Ambassador gently nodded and smiled in understanding. She then responded with what would become my first lesson in diplomacy: being a diplomat is more than cocktail parties and dinner celebrations, it is more than a style or brand of clothing, and more than even policy. Diplomacy entails creating enduring human connections that are sensitive, open, and strong enough to overcome the most bitter of challenges and enjoy even the smallest of victories. She then used examples in her own life and career of building such connections, spanning countries and cultures that I had not even heard of at the time. It was at that moment that I saw in her the reflection of the kind of person I would want to become.

Over the course of her class and later as her Research Assistant, she quickly became my mentor and person I would turn to first for life and career advice. Before I met her, I did not have much of an idea about diplomacy, much less having a career in it. Asides from a budding curiosity in international affairs, my core interests revolved around history, films, and music – subjects I did not readily associate with being a diplomat. She recognized my interests, and even welcomed my liberally-applied references to Star Wars and to the lyrics of Rush songs. In her humility, she made me feel valued – indeed, to have an Ambassador treat my pop culture references with the same respect and interest as with pieces of classical art and literature meant the world to me. She was especially encouraging of me to learn new languages, and she leapt at the chance to assist me in my application process to study Mandarin in Taiwan. She taught me that culture – even popular culture – and language are just as important to diplomacy as are economics, security and defense, and political analysis. Culture and language are ways through which we can make tangible connections with people whom may not always agree with the U.S. political perspective.

The Ambassador’s mentorship was invaluable to me because her narrative is a demonstration of the importance and power of diversity in diplomacy (indeed, the very appropriate title of her memoir!). As a Puerto Rican myself, learning of her struggles and triumphs as an African-American woman serving over 40 years in public service in a career that not long ago was very lopsided in its representation of the people of the United States provided me with fortitude and determination. She taught me that my story and background – and indeed those of everyone in the U.S. – are equally as American as her own. We all represent the U.S., whether we want to or not, whenever we communicate with people from other countries, and sometimes we may find ourselves to be the first Americans someone may meet. No stranger to combating stereotypes at home and abroad, the Ambassador taught me that any moment or kind gesture can be used to break down barriers people may have between each other and build new ground upon which we develop mutual understanding. From the Ambassador’s mentorship and encouragement, I acted on opportunities to be a citizen diplomat in professional settings at UCF and elsewhere in the world. From liaising between organizations in Orlando and international professionals on a State Department program to being a Public Diplomacy Intern at the American Institute in Taiwan, the Ambassador has empowered me to share my story to others and implement a kind of human diplomacy I believe is needed now more than ever.

Richard J. Haddock * MA Asian Studies 2017 * Elliott School of International Affairs * George Washington University

Lessons I Learned: Grace, Gratitude and the Importance of Knowing Your Worth

When I first met Ambassador Elam-Thomas as a student in her Diplomacy class, I had little knowledge of the subject–simply an interest in a career where I might learn foreign languages and travel the world. Over the course of the semester, I quickly learned that there is far more to the art of diplomacy, and I knew that I had to be a part of it. In the years that have followed since, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that Ambassador Elam-Thomas has changed my life.

After graduating from the University of Central Florida, I had the opportunity to work with the Ambassador at the Global Perspectives Office. There, I learned countless valuable lessons about how to carry myself and how to treat others. I discovered how important it is to know your worth, yet also to remain humble and graceful, and to honor those who have helped you along the way. I also learned that everyone–be they a lost undergraduate student with no life plan, or an impressive figure with a lifetime of achievements under their belt–is a person at the end of the day, deserving of compassion and dignity. I hold these lessons close to my heart as I pursue my own career in diplomacy; and, like many of her former students, am eternally grateful for Ambassador Elam-Thomas’ mentorship.

Shannon Payne * Sié Fellow, M.A. International Studies 2019 * Josef Korbel School of International Studies * University of Denver

I Wanted to Go Global

The first Lightbulb I experienced with “Auntie Harriet” was getting to meet her in person. I knew I wanted to “Go Global”, and that there was a Diplomat-in-Residence on campus. Truth be told, I had been working intently to meet her for months before a fellow administrator had mentioned her name, then simply whisked me away into her office. The irony of the entire situation was that her office was one floor down from the Multicultural Academic Support Services center. Asking questions directly can sometimes be the best method of action.

That initial conversation cemented the reality of my desire to pursue global affairs as a potential career choice, even though I did not come from a family of dignitaries, world travelers, or polyglots.  Knowing that if a small girl from Roxbury can learn Turkish in her 40s removed a great deal of fear and doubt from my head. I have since been around the world, and picked up a few languages of my own. I won’t be daft in mentioning where much of my inspiration came from. 

The notions of respect, and diligence. Respect is the world’s most widely accepted currency. Everyone wants to feel respected, and every culture has its own way of demonstrating it-some more than others. With regard to diligence, her simultaneous fights against both racism and patriarchy have imbued her with a special degree of insight and understanding.  Ambassador Elam-Thomas has such a wealth of experience, that she will undoubtedly inspire others to step back and observe the way they approach their daily interactions, which ultimately make, or break one’s success.

Reading Diversifying Diplomacy, one is also overcome by a very real moment of self auditing; its easy to complain about life’s inevitable pitfalls, but how tragic are my problems? Are they segregation sized mountains? Or are they modernist molehills? Her perspective alone should be inspiration enough to change the way one looks at his or herself in comparison to the rest of the world.

Jamaal J. Weatherspoon

Life Begins at the End of Your Comfort Zone

They say life begins at the end of your comfort zone and that is 100% true. I remember when I first applied for the Diplomacy Fellowship, I thought to myself, “Why are you applying. You probably won’t even get it.” Little did I know; I would go on to work under the leadership of Ambassador Elam-Thomas. Immediately upon meeting her, I felt right at home. After learning I was of French descent, she began speaking to me in my native tongue. That is just what type of person she is. A warm, compassionate human being that wants to make sure everyone feels welcomed. Ambassador Elam-Thomas taught me the importance of meeting each challenge with a positive attitude. I was always so excited to receive a new task from her because that meant she trusted me with that much more. She believed in my capabilities, even when at times I didn’t.

Success was not supposed to be possible for an African-American woman. But Ambassador Elam-Thomas immediately put an end to those thoughts. She opened my mind to the endless possibilities the path of diplomacy can go. And for that, I am forever thankful. Ambassador Elam-Thomas is the woman I strive to be. She is a powerhouse and force to be reckoned with. She commands every room she walks in. When she speaks, everyone stops to listen. I hope to someday become half the U.S. diplomat Ambassador Elam-Thomas is.

Cherly Lucien

Words Have the Power to Change Everything

A subtle lesson I have learned from Ambassador Elam-Thomas is the importance and true power of one’s words. From her, I learned that in both diplomacy and everyday life, words have the power to change everything. Therefore, our words must be chosen wisely and used effectively. I have been fortunate to have the Ambassador so gracefully challenge and encourage me over the years. In her likeness, I aspire every day to use my words to build friendships and coalitions that can bring forth positive change in our world.”

I firmly believe every student, regardless of their studies or career path, would gain from hearing Ambassador Elam-Thomas speak—for when she speaks, she inspires everyone in the room. She has a unique way of challenging young people to view their studies as an opportunity to not only advance themselves, but to also bring lasting and important change to this world. One cannot hear her speak and leave without feeling empowered and charged with the responsibility to be a leader in this world.

Nick Grandchamps * Charles B. Rangel Fellow * American University, SIS