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Former OU Diplomat In Residence Describes Life In The Foreign Service

Jean Preston
Jessica Woods
/
OU Daily

When the University of Oklahoma’s former Diplomat in Residence Jean Preston was ten years old, she picked up the book The Ugly American by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer at a garage sale. The book describes the lives of American people living in a fictionalized South East Asian country (based on Vietnam).

“I said, "Gosh wouldn't that be a great job! I'd get to travel around the world, represent the United States, meet all sorts of interesting people, get to learn about their cultures, explain our culture and our government to them,” Preston says.

Thirteen years later she was fulfilling her dream of traveling the world as a member of the U.S. Foreign Service - working in countries such as Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Italy, Mexico and Venezuela.

Preston says one of the most important jobs of the Foreign Service is to provide a neutral platform for people from different sides of the issues to come together.

“There were times in which I felt as if the U.S. ambassador's residence in Guatemala was the one place where people from very different backgrounds, from indigenous leaders to private sector leaders to union leaders to human rights activists to government officials, could all meet and get to know each other as individuals,” Preston says.

Foreign Service workers also negotiate national agreements and ensure that the governments of countries are fulfilling the obligations they agree to.

“The idea is that we are all taking measures to make the world a better place, to defend the global commons, but we all will take those measures,” Preston says. “If someone is and someone is not, then the person who is taking those measures could be competitively disadvantaged.”

Her most recent international assignment took her to Guatemala where from 2003 to 2006 she led initiatives to promote free and fair elections, human rights and the rule of law. She also worked to combat human trafficking and ensure implementation of the Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement.

“Part of what we did was just support all the institutions that are essential to the rule of law like forensics, fingerprints, tracking ballistics, the judicial system, police training and investigation,” Preston says.

Preston finished her term as Diplomat in Residence for the central region (North Dakota, South Dakota, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma) in Spring 2014  to become deputy director of the Office of Conservation in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.

She expresses delight in the number of students pursuing internships and careers in international diplomacy.

“I've had an absolutely wonderful time at OU and I've been thrilled to see some of those students go on to take advantage of some of these wonderful opportunities."

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On what inspired her to join the Foreign Service:

When I was ten I read a novel called The Ugly American which I had picked up at a garage sale and I said "gosh wouldn't that be a great job! I'd get to travel around the world, represent the United States, meet all sorts of interesting people, get to learn about their cultures, explain our culture and our government to them. I wonder how I get to do that.” Thirteen years later, I was joining the Foreign Service.

On the help that US Foreign Service Workers provide:

One of the interesting things the US can do is just to be a neutral ground where people can meet each other. People who might otherwise not get to meet each other in society that can be very divided. There were times in which I felt as if the US ambassador's residence in Guatemala was the one place where people from very different backgrounds from indigenous leaders to private sector leaders to union leaders to human rights activists to government officials could all meet and get to know each other as individuals. In fact, sometimes after we invited a very diverse group of people to the residence I would hear back the next week from people from all different sides, "Where did you find those interesting people and how could I meet them again?"

When we negotiate national agreements, the idea is that we are all taking measures to make the world a better place, to defend the global commons but we all will take those measures. If someone is and someone is not, then the person who is taking those measures could be competitively disadvantaged. That's why we have international agreements, to make sure we are all playing by the same rules. The trick is in the enforcement of those commitments. 

On Guatemala:

Guatemala emerged from a thirty-six-year internal conflict in 1996, shortly after that they began negotiations for the Central American Free Trade Agreement and there's been a lot of hope that the country would heal it is healing, but I think not as quickly as everyone would like. When I arrived in Guatemala is had the 8th highest murder rate in the world and that declined substantially from over 40 per 100,000 per year down to 34 by the time that I left. That was just three years. Yes, the numbers are still bad but the trend is in the right direction. Guatemala has some of the highest rates of chronic child malnutrition in the world. Almost 50 percent of the children under four are chronically malnourished so the government has introduced a program called Zero Hunger with an emphasis on the first thousand days because if you can give a child adequate nutrition in the first thousand days of their life it can have impacts for` the rest of their life in terms of brain development, physical development, success in school.

On protecting animals that migrate:

I think one of the things that's important to keep in mind is that a lot of species that we think of as ours are also other country's species. The Baltimore Oriole spends half of its life in Venezuela and Central America so any measure that we take to conserve Baltimore Orioles in the states will be ineffective if we're not working with the countries in whose habitat that Oriole lives for the other half of its life. Whether we like those governments or not, if we want to preserve our species, we need to work with them.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Jean Preston, Welcome to World Views.

JEAN PRESTON: Thank you so much.

GRILLOT: So I always like to start just by asking, "How did you end up in the foreign service? What led you down that path to seek out the Foreign Service because you've spent a good number of years there and you have done some really incredible things? Tell us how you even got there.

PRESTON: Well the short version is that when I was ten I read a novel called The Ugly American which I had picked up at a garage sale and I said "gosh wouldn't that be a great job! I'd get to travel around the world, represent the United States, meet all sorts of interesting people, get to learn about their cultures, explain our culture and our government to them. I wonder how I get to do that. Thirteen years later, I was joining the Foreign Service.

GRILLOT: Well not many people can explain their career choices from a book they picked up at a garage sale. That's pretty amazing. So once you joined the Foreign Service, you served in six different countries on a couple different continents. You spent a lot of time in Guatemala and in particular, leading projects that many of us find very interesting: human rights projects, rule of law projects. As we know, a little bit about Guatemala, it’s a troubled country. Can you tell us a little bit about your time there and some of the projects that you led? Where is Guatemala heading today?

PRESTON: Well Guatemala emerged from a thirty-six-year internal conflict in 1996, shortly after that they began negotiations for the Central American Free Trade Agreement and there's been a lot of hope that the country would heal it is healing, but I think not as quickly as everyone would like. An important part of that healing is the rule of law. There’s justice and there's reconciliation, the two sides of the healing process. Part of what we did was just support all the institutions that are essential to the rule of law like forensics, fingerprints, tracking ballistics, the judicial system, police training and investigation. Other members of the international community support the commission against impunity in Guatemala, which is led by the UN, which also had a very important role. The selection of Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz was a tremendous step forward. She was a former human rights advocate. Very effective and very principled. So all those things together made a big difference.

GRILLOT: You mentioned healing and reconciliation. It seems to me that this is often the trickiest thing to really manage in a country as you said that experienced 36 years of civil war with a tremendous amount of atrocity. How do actually facilitate reconciliation, which involves forgiveness? How can US government officials help people forgive each other in these types of war torn countries?

PRESTON: It's not easy for them and there are limits to what the US can do but one of the interesting things the US can do is just to be a neutral ground where people can meet each other. People who might otherwise not get to meet each other in society that can be very divided. There were times in which I felt as if the US ambassador's residence in Guatemala was the one place where people from very different backgrounds from indigenous leaders to private sector leaders to union leaders to human rights activists to government officials could all meet and get to know each other as individuals. In fact, sometimes after we invited a very diverse group of people to the residence I would hear back the next week from people from all different sides, "Where did you find those interesting people and how could I meet them again?" and one of the things I found most encouraging is that there were different for a that emerged in which Guatemalans decided that they wanted to continue meeting with each other across the sectors and trying to find a way to bridge the divide.

GRILLOT: That's got to be the most challenging work ever. As far as the future of Guatemala, you look at the statistics and its still rather unstable. There are still high rates of homicide, its still a concerning place in Central America. Are you hopeful that Guatemala is on the right path and healing, as it should?

PRESTON: I am hopeful. When I arrived in Guatemala is had the 8th highest murder rate in the world and that declined substantially from over 40 per 100,000 per year down to 34 by the time that I left. That was just three years. Yes, the numbers are still bad but the trend is in the right direction. It is tough to be fighting drug trafficking and gangs. Those are terrible influences and it’s a challenge that we share in the US and something we work with the Guatemalan government to try to combat. Another trend that I think is important is the government’s efforts to combat child malnutrition. Guatemala has some of the highest rates of chronic child malnutrition in the world. Almost 50 percent of the children under four are chronically malnourished so the government has introduced a program called Zero Hunger with an emphasis on the first thousand days because if you can give a child adequate nutrition in the first thousand days of their life it can have impacts for` the rest of their life in terms of brain development, physical development, success in school. The US Feed The Future program was just administered by both the Agency for International Development and the US department of agriculture has worked closely with the Guatemalan government in that initiative.

GRILLOT: I want to switch gears just a little bit and move from Guatemala to one of your other postings and in fact I think you had two different postings in Italy before you went to Guatemala. Tell us a little bit about your time in Italy. You don't get to pick your assignments; you often go from one country to a completely different country. As you tell us a little bit about your time in Italy and the things you worked on there, how you then make that transition from an Italian experience and the Italian issues and US Italian relations to a very different context in Guatemala and working in a country that has a 36 year history of conflict and a very different relationship with the United States. 

PRESTON: One of the things that I spent a lot of time on in Italy both in my first tour there and my second tour there were fisheries issues. I was called an Environment Science Technology and Health Officer. There are all kinds of international agreements to what kind of fisheries gear countries will use and which ones they won't use in order to protect species like whales and sea turtles and dolphins and fisheries is a very sensitive issue in almost any county. Fisherman like to fish the way they like to fish and regulating it is something that can involve regional governments like the European Union, the Italian government, international agreements. So it comes down to the rule of law. It comes down to how you help governments carry out the things that they have agreed to do and whether that’s fisheries, as in the case of Italy, or whether that’s fulfilling labor commitments undertaken in the course of the Central American Free Trade Agreements a lot of the mechanisms are the same. You need to work with the judiciary, you need to understand the other country's legal system, you have to see what concrete measures can be taken on the ground to make the commitments that those governments undertook a reality.

GRILLOT: So this is a very interesting lesson I think, for many of us, that despite the local context and the local issues and problems there is one thing that really does motivate foreign service officers and US government policy in any location and that is this issue of rule of law and good governance and working to establish the best practices possible to best govern whatever issue we're facing in each country.

PRESTON: Correct and to ensure a level playing field for US companies and US workers. When we negotiate national agreements, the idea is that we are all taking measures to make the world a better place, to defend the global commons but we all will take those measures. If someone is and someone is not, then the person who is taking those measures could be competitively disadvantaged. That's why we have international agreements, to make sure we are all playing by the same rules. The trick is in the enforcement of those commitments. 

GRILLOT: That is definitely the trick. Speaking of that issue and wrapping back into the things you already said, you mentioned being an environmental officer while you were serving in Italy, that's your next post, you're going on to serve in Washington, I believe, as an environmental officer, focusing on environmental issues and confirmation issues. This seems to be a love of yours, this is something you've spent many years working on and so tell us a little bit more about what you'll be doing in that respect and how that issue is so tricky when it comes to enforcing international law around the world.

PRESTON: The office I'll be going to is the office of conservation and water in our Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. I'll be the deputy director of the office. It's the office that works on terrestrial conservation so combating wildlife trafficking, combating illegal logging, also promoting sustainable use of fresh water resources and so these are the people who negotiate those international agreements that set the frame work for our interactions in those areas and I think one of the things that's important to keep in mind is that a lot of species that we think of as ours are also other country's species. The Baltimore Oriole spends half of its life in Venezuela and Central America so any measure that we take to conserve Baltimore Orioles in the states will be ineffective if we're not working with the countries in whose habitat that Oriole lives for the other half of its life. Whether we like those governments or not, if we want to preserve our species, we need to work with them.

GRILLOT: That's an excellent illustration of the trans-national world in which we live and that no one country, no one actor, no one player can address any one problem. You have to do this multilaterally. I just want to end with a thank you. You spent the last year here in Norman with us at the University of Oklahoma having a tremendous impact on our student body here. You served as our diplomat in residence for the past year. We're really sorry to see you go even though you are going on to do amazing things in the future, undoubtedly. The student part of your work has really been quite incredible and I think a lot of people don't understand that the state department has a student oriented program such as diplomat in residence where you're settled at a university and you work with students to help facilitate their future careers in the foreign service. Tell us a little about what you've done some of the successes you've had as you've been spending the past year here with us.

PRESTON: First of all, let me say I've had an absolutely wonderful time at OU: wonderful faculty and students here and I've been thrilled to see some of those students go on to take advantage of some of these wonderful opportunities that we have and I'm delighted to say that this year there are three students from OU. One who received the Hispanic Association Internship, one the Washington Internship for Native Students, another a former OU grad has been working out in the work world a bit and has received the Pickering fellowship and a student from Oklahoma City University is one of the Rangel’s. So these are just wonderful opportunities and at a time when people are looking for ways to pay for higher education they provide a chance to get a foot into the work world and see this fascinating work that we do.

GRILLOT: Well these are great opportunities for our young people but I think another thing to keep in mind is that the state department isn't just looking for young people and college grads. There are lots of opportunities in technical fields, non-technical fields if people are thinking about a career change.

PRESTON: Absolutely we hire construction engineers, doctors, nurses, security specialists, information technology people and we have a lot of second career people in the foreign service, both former military folks who have worked in one career in the states but always wanted to run away and see the world and folks who have gone overseas, seen what life is like that are now looking for something relatively more stable. You wouldn't think of moving every two or three years and perhaps serving in Afghanistan or Iraq as more stable but for some folks that is. 

GRILLOT: Well Jeanne thank you so much for being with us today on World Views to share your views, obviously your career has been and inspiration to many students and me and my colleagues here at OU. Thank you so much for what you've done and for being with us on World Views.

PRESTON: It’s been a great pleasure.

Copyright © 2014 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

Sarah Hurd has worn many hats at KGOU. She worked as Development Assistant, entering pledges and payments. She served as intern for World Views for the Fall 2014 semester, transcribing and webifying interviews. She was also a student in the Radio News class that fall. When Sarah isn’t camping out at the KGOU headquarters she can be found biking around Norman, supporting her favorite local bands and studying for her classes at the OU College of International Studies and Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication.
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