Diplomats come from all corners of the United States. They come from hamlets along the Oregon coast, from Florida cities, from Appalachian Mountain towns and from lots of places in between.
In recent years, thousands of civil servants and foreign service officers from the U.S. Department of State have traveled to their hometowns to talk about foreign policy work to students at their alma maters or to local citizens at community centers. These return visitors hope to inspire a new generation to branch out and engage with the wide world as diplomats for the United States. Not surprisingly, by making these visits they realize how much of their hometowns they have been carrying with them as they work, whether in Washington or in far-flung countries.
Here, six U.S. diplomats talk about how their hometowns influence them — every day — as they pursue foreign policy goals. Throughout the story, press ▶ to hear the diplomats in their own words.
Aria Lu, whose parents are from Taiwan, grew up in Orefield, Pennsylvania, at the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country — a rural area settled by German immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Lu boasts that she has always been an adventurous eater, a trait that she credits to her Pennsylvania roots.
While she and her sister were the only two Asian American students in her elementary school, there was a larger Asian American community in the Lehigh Valley — an area of green, rolling hills, cornfields and blue skies adjacent to Orefield. Lu’s father, who came to the United States for dental school, started a dentistry practice there and became a trusted dentist to patients of many ethnic backgrounds.
Living in the Orefield area encouraged Lu’s love of eating good food.
Every few years during summer, Lu’s mother would take her and her siblings to Taiwan, and those visits broadened her cultural — and perhaps more important, snacking — horizons.
While in college at Wellesley, Lu applied for and received a State Department internship that opened her eyes to the life of a foreign service officer. She pursued the career track as a security officer for the U.S. Department of State.
After college, Lu entered the foreign service as a security officer, and enjoyed cultural exchanges, some — surprise — centered around food. But she does approach her work with motivations more noble than epicurean ones. Keeping diplomats safe, she says, is her small part of alleviating suffering and promoting peace in the world. Her first job was on then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s security detail. Next, she was transferred to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, where she helped protect the embassy during protests that turned violent.
She says she was highly focused on keeping embassy staffers safe. And when she later worked at the Beijing Olympics, she also worked hard to keep athletes and other Americans safe.
“I think about why I’m there and the job that I do, and my mission … it is to help the American people,” she says. “It is to serve my country, but for me, that really translates into people and when I think people, I literally think of people that I grew up with — my neighbors, you know, schoolmates, teachers, my orthodontist, everyone. I literally picture the people of America … faces of people that I grew up with.”
As a child growing up in in Portsmouth, Ohio, Stephen Ellsesser would flip through the pages of his grandfather’s National Geographic magazines to learn about people who traveled to different parts of the world. And when his aunt and uncle went to Okinawa, Japan, to visit their son — Ellsesser’s older cousin who was there with the U.S. Marine Corps — they brought him souvenirs and stories.
As he grew up, he held on to his interest in world travel.
Today, as a foreign service officer for the U.S. Department of State, Ellsesser carries the spirit of Portsmouth with him. The small Ohio town near the borders of West Virginia and Kentucky is a place where everybody knows everybody.
Ellsesser and his sister are the fifth generation of their families to live there. They went to the same secondary school as their grandfather. Members of their extended family live in homes passed down from their grandparents’ generation.
A few years after the Berlin Wall fell, when Ellsesser was an adolescent, Portsmouth and Zittau, Germany, became “sister cities” through a nonprofit organization founded in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to foster cultural diplomacy.
In truth, Ellsesser mainly remembers “this really awesome lapel pin, this very official-looking crest for the City of Zittau” worn by the man. “I was just, ‘Wow,’” he says.
After earning his bachelor’s degree at Ohio University, working as a reporter for a few years and then earning a law degree, Ellsesser worked for a time for the local government of El Paso, Texas.
But his wanderlust did not leave him, and in 2018 it inspired him to take the foreign service exam.
His upbringing in a small town has clung to him as he works his first assignment for the State Department — as a consular officer reviewing visa applications in the large European city of Warsaw, Poland.
For instance, Ellsesser loves that Portsmouth’s old-timers still talk about the area’s earlier businesses, such as Millhuff’s Department Store. His grandmother Faye worked there and earned a reputation for her no-nonsense approach to sales. People might ask other salesclerks how a dress or shirt looks. But, if they had doubts, they would seek out Faye.
The store’s building was torn down in 2003, but Ellsesser keeps a brick from the original storefront, even as he travels for the State Department. The brick reminds him of his hometown.
When he meets people whom he will interview for a visa to the U.S., Ellsesser sometimes imagines they are from a town like his. He tries to bring Portsmouth’s sense of community to his questions.
Because Warsaw is not far from the borders of eastern Germany, one recent weekend, Ellsesser (remembering his brush with Portsmouth’s German sister city Zittau as a kid) took a road trip to see Zittau for himself.
When he got there, Ellsesser says, he consulted a map on a sign that “had what I imagined to be the exact same official seal for the city of Zittau” as the lapel pin had!
Seth Blaylock’s childhood in Provo, Utah, seems typical of many kids growing up in the suburbs of an American city. After school, he and his friends rode bicycles around their cul-de-sac and, as they got older, all over the city. They may have taken for granted the snow-capped mountains looming up behind them as they pedaled to the local mall and the town’s natural bounty as they stopped at orchards to pick peaches or cherries. But now those scenes replay in Blaylock’s mind’s eye.
Blaylock played baseball in a park where a replica of a covered wagon stood — the kind of wooden vehicle with a canvas awning that pioneers took on their journeys westward across the United States in the 19th century. He thought the wagon marked the spot where the pioneers — some of whom were fleeing religious persecution — landed to settle his hometown.
While it was neither an original pioneer wagon nor in the location they ended their travels, it has remained a symbol for Blaylock of Americans’ constitutional right to practice any religion freely.
“Even though I grew up in this idyllic environment with, you know, a lot of good people around me and good opportunities — not everybody has that,” he says. He connects his upbringing to his work today as a diplomat. “How important — being able to maintain and protect the rights that you have in America or you should have as a human being,” he says.
Provo — one of the most religious cities in the United States, according to a Gallup poll — was founded by followers of Joseph Smith’s teachings in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Today, the majority of residents still identify as Mormon.
As a model U.N. student in secondary school, Blaylock imagined what it would be like to act as a diplomat and to advocate for those who were unfairly punished for their religious beliefs.
But it wasn’t until after completing law school at New York University and working for a few years that Blaylock, in earnest, thought about a career at the U.S. Department of State. He was working at the FBI as a counterterrorism analyst.
Blaylock joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 2008. In the last decade and half, he has seen much of the world. He worked his way from approving visas in the Philippines to advocating for human rights in Malaysia. He considers his commitment to human rights a direct outcome of growing up in Provo.
“A lot of my career, I’ve been very lucky to work on things like human rights,” he says. “You know, whether it is with freedom of journalists — the right to not get shot — in the Philippines or in Malaysia ... I worked very closely with, you know, everybody from Christian groups who are having problems with the religious authorities to LGBTQI+ groups who were having issues, right? And just the idea that I can be from the United States — a force, hopefully, for good and helping protect people’s rights, give them opportunities — that’s been a real joy in my life.”
He says U.S. diplomats around the world ensure the security and values of his friends at home in Utah, too.
During her childhood summers in her hometown Aurora, Illinois — a suburb of Chicago — Kristine Marsh listened to her grandfather’s stories about serving in the South Pacific during World War II.
She tried to envision the places he described. Sometimes she would lie on the grass and stare up at the clouds, wondering to herself, “What would life be like if I were in another place, another country, another part of the world?”
Marsh, who comes from big families on both her mother’s and father’s sides that settled in Aurora during the 19th century, connected with her grandfather by reading magazines.
“At one point, he received a special issue, a TIME magazine that was all about the Soviet Union,” she says, “and I was a very respectful child and always left all of these things with him. … I didn’t take them home. But this one, I felt very compelled to ask him if I could keep.” (He said yes.)
In secondary school, Marsh was admitted to the State Department’s Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange program, a partnership with Germany. The yearlong exchange in western Germany was her first experience being fully immersed in another culture, which she says also opened her eyes to the life of a diplomat. It was 1985, before the Berlin Wall fell, and Marsh and her peers traveled on trains that crossed the border dividing West and East Germany.
Marsh’s trip had been influenced by her earlier exposure to international students, including some Germans, visiting her town. They saw buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Bruce Goff and George Grant Elmslie. They went to county fairs and tried home-baked goods and learned about arts and crafts made by local residents. Their time living with an Illinois family helped them understand something of American culture.
“It’s extremely important that any foreign visitors in the United States come away with a good feeling about who Americans are as well as what America is,” Marsh says, “and there is nothing like being hosted in a home by a good Midwestern family,” she boasts.
By the time she went to college, Marsh knew she wanted to learn more about other cultures. As part of her work toward a degree in Russian language and political science at the University of Arizona, she studied abroad at St. Petersburg State University. It is not surprising she went on to work in the U.S. Foreign Service.
Marsh has been posted in Turkmenistan, Hungary, Senegal and Kyrgyzstan. She thinks about her hometown wherever she goes, and she wishes she could tell her grandfather her own travel stories.
“I bring Aurora’s values with me to work every single day. I feel about my work like I would about a volunteer position that I just really love, and that’s what makes my work fulfilling and makes my work — my life really — what it’s all about,” she says.
The roar of fans cheering on the Portland Trail Blazers inside Rose Garden arena in Portland, Oregon, left Moises Mendoza’s ears ringing. As he stepped outside into the night with his family and friends, after watching NBA stars score basket after basket during a playoff game years ago, Mendoza thought to himself that the players, from all over the world, were heroes whose backgrounds were like his own.
His mother is an immigrant from Colombia, and his father is from the United States.
Growing up in the predominantly white community of Washington County, outside of Portland, meant that Mendoza, because of his mother’s heritage, sometimes felt like an outsider. He tried to hide his Colombian background to blend in with classmates. He rejected his mother’s suggestions that he accompany her on visits to her relatives in Colombia.
Perhaps his exposure to basketball stars was behind his decision to eventually visit his mother’s family. When he went to Colombia, Mendoza loved the experience and came back with a newfound appreciation of his roots.
Mendoza began to see diversity as a strength and sought out information about other countries. In secondary school, as a part of a Distributive Education Clubs of America project, he read about child soldiers in Sierra Leone. He worked with his teacher, Peg Haskell, to raise money for a nongovernmental organization (NGO) dedicated to stopping the exploitative practice.
Mendoza’s project was a big success. He not only raised $6,000 — a lot for a small school like his — for the NGO but was invited to travel with its leaders to Sierra Leone to see how their work unfolded. While there, he accompanied them to meet with State Department employees at the U.S. Embassy.
Mendoza attended Georgetown University, where he studied international affairs. After graduating, he worked as a reporter in Seattle, San Antonio and Houston, but his interest in international relations resurfaced. He went abroad to Germany and worked for the European Commission and the German parliament. Then, in 2014, Mendoza applied to the U.S. Foreign Service. His dual Colombian/American background, he says, makes him “a stronger diplomat, frankly.”
During his first rotation as a foreign service officer, Mendoza worked at a consulate in Matamoros, Mexico. There, he spearheaded an innovative initiative to train his colleagues in CPR and first aid skills.
Since then, he’s worked in Haiti and Washington for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. Today, he is part of the State Department's operation center that works around the clock to resolve emergencies abroad and keep top officials informed so they can protect the American people.
Last year, while tracking issues affecting Belize, Mendoza met one of his childhood sports heroes: Olympic gold medalist ice skater Michelle Kwan, who had been nominated (and recently was appointed) as U.S. ambassador to Belize. Mendoza enjoyed working with her as she completed the steps to become an ambassador.
He sent a picture of him with Kwan to his mother. Her reaction brought him back to his childhood in Oregon and the time when watching sports heroes helped him begin to see eye-to-eye with her.
As a recent secondary school graduate, Olukemi Lombardo-Yai stepped for the first time onto the University of Florida campus in Gainesville, where her father was teaching, and she felt at home.
Yai, then 18, was born in Benin and went to secondary school in Ile-Ife, Nigeria. She had arrived in the United States with family members to join their father, a recently hired professor of African languages and literature.
The Gainesville campus, with its diverse student body, reminded Yai of school in Nigeria, where she had teachers and friends from several countries, including the United States. She enrolled as a student at the Florida campus.
“As small as Gainesville was, it was very, very diverse,” Yai recalls.
She made friends from Romania, Ghana, Kenya and Jamaica. She loved learning about their cultures and their languages, and felt her life expand.
Perhaps also due to her parents’ interest in Afro Brazilian and Afro Cuban culture, Yai thought she wanted one day to be a cultural attaché, a diplomat who shares art and culture across borders. She had been born in Benin, but moved to Nigeria in elementary school, and now was getting to know the United States. In Nigeria, she was a Francophone who, at first, did not speak Yoruba or English.
Her father encouraged her, as a college student at the University of Florida, to study Japanese, an endeavor that led her to study abroad in Osaka, Japan, for a year. Yai declared her major to be Japanese studies during the time she was there.
After graduating and living in Paris for a year, Yai earned a master’s degree in international relations at American University and landed a job as a civil servant with the U.S. Department of State.
Yai has worked in the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, but as a civil servant she doesn’t regularly rotate to overseas assignments the way foreign service officers do. This status has allowed her to focus on conflict resolution for 15 years.
For the most part, Yai works every day at the State Department’s main headquarters in Washington as a part of the Africa Bureau’s policy team, but she has overseen peace negotiations in Sudan and she has traveled to Berlin, Paris, Doha, Juba, Khartoum and other cities to work on peace negotiations and smooth political transitions.
Thinking back to how her multiple hometowns prepared her for sometimes tense political negotiations, Yai says her days as a scrawny secondary school student in Nigeria, when she was a class captain and made sure her peers followed the headmaster’s rules, shaped who she is today. She was tasked with a responsibility and had to stand up to some of the bigger boys in her class as a smaller — albeit opinionated — girl.
Her years in Gainesville gave her the conviction that diverse ideas and cultures help along understanding among people from different countries.