By Fleming Smith
Photo courtesy of athavaneng.com
Under Secretary Thomas Shannon of the State Department may soon visit Sewanee; although he recently postponed his visit, perhaps to a date later this month, Katie Jannotta (C’17) continues working hard in order to bring this inspiring speaker to campus. Jannotta and I conducted a phone interview with Shannon to discuss his life and career, offering a short preview of his later visit to the Domain.
Shannon first explained his understanding of a diplomat’s role. “We try to connect our peoples and our societies so that we can improve understanding and cooperation by ensuring that all of the people in our countries are connected in one fashion or another,” he said. Shannon has worked as a foreign service officer for thirty-two years, but described his favorite position as the time he spent in South Africa as a Regional Neighbor Officer from 1992 to 1996. “This was when apartheid ended, when Nelson Mandela was elected, and I was involved in the very center of these political changes, and it was a very exciting time for me,” said Shannon.
When asked how he became involved in the foreign service, Shannon laughed and said, “When I was growing up, the only thing I really wanted to do was play baseball.” He continued, “I stumbled across the foreign service when I was at school at The College of William & Mary. The children of many foreign service officers attended there, and this was the first time I had real contact with people who had spent large periods of their lives overseas somewhere.” Shannon also spent three years in the United Kingdom, where he grew to love living abroad. “I noticed one day an advertisement for the foreign service exam which was being given at our embassy in London and I decided I’d take it.”
Shannon also gave advice to students interested in the foreign service; firstly, to take the exam, and as many times as needed. “People who are interested in the foreign service have to be interested in a bigger world, and they have to be interested in adventure, and they have to be prepared to put themselves way beyond their comfort zone,” said Shannon. He revealed that when he joined, he did not speak a foreign language, although he is now fluent in Spanish and Portuguese. To him, foreign service applicants don’t necessarily need language skills or time spent overseas to be competitive. “You just need to be smart,” Shannon said.
He recommended ways that Sewanee students, and the university as a whole, can become more global. For instance, he suggested that Sewanee try to attract more international students, perhaps recruiting them from different places around the globe. “That gives people on campus a connection with other parts of the world in a way that’s daily,” Shannon explained. He also mentioned study abroad and that Sewanee could connect with different non-governmental organizations (NGOs), specifically human rights campaigns, in order to bring these global issues to campus and start discussions.
“This is a diverse and amazing world,” said Shannon on what he’s learned over his career. “There are pretty remarkable things out there waiting for anybody who has an interest and spirit to go out and find them. I’m reminded of just how remarkable human beings are.”
However, Shannon initially had doubts about joining the foreign service, and he once asked the advice of a family friend who worked in the service. “He told me something that has always struck me as very smart. He said, ‘Listen. It’s a pretty easy decision. If what’s important to you is being close to your family, close to what’s familiar, having a steady, predictable job and living a steady, predictable life, then don’t join the foreign service.
‘But if what’s important to you is, at the end of the day, walking down a dusty road to a marketplace where people are speaking foreign languages, selling products you don’t necessarily recognize, wearing clothes you’ve never seen before, and when you realize that you’re far away from everything that is familiar but close to what’s important and exciting, then join the foreign service.’ And that’s what I wanted, to be able to walk down a dusty road and find something that I’ve never seen before,” said Shannon. In thirty-two years of work, he has likely now discovered many new people and places, representing the United States to the world at large.
If interested in hearing more from Under Secretary Shannon, please look for an announcement about the new date of his visit to Sewanee.