News & Publications
The College Magazine - Summer 2008
THE FACE OF AMERICA
Chris Allison (SF97) shown here with his wife, Beth Rollins, at the statue of the
Great Buddha of Kamakura, Japan, revels in Japanese culture and traditions
During my years at St. John's, I never suspected that Thucydides, Plutarch, and Machiavelli were secretly preparing me for a career in diplomacy, but in hindsight it seems so obvious.
I am a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) of the U.S. Department of State. FSOs compose the U.S. government's diplomatic corps, staffing embassies and consulates in more than 250 cities around the world. As such, we represent the United States to the governments of other countries and look out for the welfare of American citizens abroad. As my employer frequently reminds me, I am the face of America overseas. I know this may seem strange to some of my classmates who haven't seen me in a few years, but it couldn't be a more natural fit.
After joining the State Department in the spring of 2004, I was first dispatched to interview visa applicants at the U.S. Consulate in Chennai, India. One of the core functions of American consulates is reviewing visa applications of foreign nationals who wish to travel to the United States. Though I joined the State Department as an Economic Officer, adjudicating visas is a sort of rite of passage for FSOs. Every newly hired officer is required to do at least one year of consular work upon joining the department, and this usually means working the visa line in a place like Chennai.
During my two years in India, I stood at a window much like one might encounter at the Department of Motor Vehicles and listened patiently as people explained why they needed to travel to the states. In order to approve most types of visa, an officer must be convinced that the applicant plans to depart from the states after a short period of time, regardless of why they wish to visit. Of course, there is also a responsibility to try to keep out criminals, terrorists, human traffickers, drug lords, and other undesirables. My job was to discern those who planned to follow the rules from those who did not in the space of a two- to three-minute interview. In places like India, where wages are lower and poverty more widespread than in the U.S., this is no simple task. I typically did 75-100 interviews every day. It was interesting work, though often draining.
At the conclusion of my assignment to India, I transferred to Japan to work at Embassy Tokyo. Japan and India could not be more different, and the abruptness of this transition left me reeling. Where India is colorful, noisy, and a trifle chaotic, some people find Japan to be grey, rigid, and subdued. Despite its recent economic progress, India is still very much a developing country, where the morning commute is regularly impeded by ox carts or free-range cows blocking major thoroughfares. Japan, by contrast, is one of the most highly developed economies and most orderly societies in the world. While I am normally the type of person to enjoy the sensory stimulation of the developing world, after two years of it, Tokyo's more muted tones were a welcome change of pace.
The work could not be more different as well. I currently work on the staff of U.S. Ambassador to Japan J. Thomas Schieffer, helping to keep him informed about a wide array of issues requiring his attention. (Incidentally, Ambassador Schieffer has a St. John's connection: his son Paul graduated from the Annapolis campus in 2007.) In some ways, I am little more than a standard-issue bureaucrat: I read reports, I go to meetings, I brief people, I compile reports, and I push papers—some virtual, some made of actual paper—from one place to another.
But that's only one part of the job. I have a ringside seat for what former Ambassador to Japan Mike Mansfield famously called "the most important bilateral relationship in the world, bar none." My boss is on the nightly news on a regular basis. In the next couple of months, Japan will host the G-8 Summit, and I'll be in the middle of it. I have met cabinet secretaries, members of Congress, one former and one current Vice President, and the home run king of Japan. Not bad for a humble bureaucrat, if you ask me.
This may seem like a strange career choice for someone who not that long ago spent his days playing Frisbee in front of Meem Library and his nights pondering Kant, but I can't imagine doing anything else. The Foreign Service is, in some ways, like St. John's: a small and somewhat obscure organization with a lot of tradition and a culture all its own. The variety of different skills—and different parts of my brain—that the work requires on a daily basis is also familiar. I have to speak persuasively, write clearly, struggle with foreign languages, and work through countless situations that lie outside of my core competencies. If St. John's provides the ultimate generalist education, then the Foreign Service is the ultimate generalist career. The longer I do this and the more I come to understand the values of the Service, the more I feel like this is what St. John's was preparing me for all along.
By Christopher Allison (SF97)