By Julia Cinquegrani, Campus Life Editor
Even after graduating from F&M, Stephen Keat ’78, retired eonomic service officer for the U.S. Deprtment of State and current Mt. Vernon District Representative, was never able to shed the College’s identifier — diplomat.
Keat retired last September from the State Department after serving there for 29 years. For most of that time, he lived abroad, working as an Economic Officer on assignments in Kenya, Somalia, the Philippines, Spain, Uruguay, and the Dominican Republic, to name a few.
Keat returned to F&M last week to give a presentation entitled, “An Experience in Foreign and Economic Policy: Career Opportunities for F&M Students,” in which he described his career highlights and opportunities for students to work for the State Department. He also met individually with interested students to discuss careers in greater detail.
His assignments through the State Department varied in every country based on the region’s economic and political structure. In some of his first positions, he worked as a consul in the Dominican Republic, where he was responsible for helping Americans in the country. For example, he aided U.S. citizens who came to the American embassy if they lost their passports, needed medical help, or were in legal trouble.
“I remember visiting an American college student in jail who had been smoking
marijuana, and that’s illegal in the Dominican Republic,” Keat said. “He was shocked that they had arrested him. All I could do was visit him, contact his family, and make sure he wasn’t being mistreated.”
As Keat gained more experience, he began working as an economic officer. He dealt with economic problems of the country he was stationed in, problems that varied greatly based on the situation. He would write reports on what was happening economically, such as reporting on the tourism industry, the production of goods and services, and what opportunities it presented for the U.S.
He also represented U.S. economic interests and would meet with foreign government officials to discuss upcoming issues, relay the U.S.’s position on these issues, and speak to the press. Keat met with a range of people in each country to gain varied perspectives on the issues.
“I was representing the United States, so I was trying to make people like the U.S. and put the U.S. in the best light possible,” Keat said. “People have all sorts of stereotypes about the United States. I remember when I was in the Dominican Republic I was on the beach when a few young boys came over. One of my friends was black, and the boys asked us where we were from, and we said the U.S. The boys wouldn’t believe my friend was from the U.S. because he was black. So in many levels you deal with a range of stereotypes.”
Depending on the country, the State Department’s shortest assignments last for about two years, and the longest assignments last for five years. Between assignments in different countries, Foreign Service workers spend time off at home in the U.S., and some work at the State Department offices in Washington, D.C. People’s assignments are changed frequently to ensure they remain familiar with the U.S.’s goals and popular culture.
Keat explained people must be adaptable to work in the Foreign Service and that skills gained in one country can be applied later to other assignments in other regions.
“In every country there are all sorts of things to see and do,” Keat said. “To be exposed to these different cultures, like going scuba diving in the Philippines and seeing huge sharks, are wonderful experiences the average person doesn’t necessarily get.”
While Keat said every country is fascinating in different ways, his time spent serving in Somalia in the 1980s was especiallydifficult.
“I got shot at while I was there, and there were all sorts of problems,” he said. “Somalia was like the Iraq of my era. I remember, when I got to Kenya after serving in Somalia there were some [Americans] who were complaining because the stores didn’t have Hellmann’s mayonnaise or Charmin’s toilet paper. But coming from Somalia, Kenya felt like a paradise.”
While at F&M, Keat double majored in government and economics and explained that government policy must be balanced by economic concerns. His work often crossed lines between working with U.S. State Department officials on economic issues and collaborating with foreign government officials.
After his retirement from the State Department in 2012, Keat took up residence in Fairfax County, Va. and works as both a member of the Economic Development Committee through the South East Fairfax Development Corporation and a Mt. Vernon District Representative and member of the Implementation Committee in the Fairfax County Economic Advisory Commission.
When giving advice to students interested in foreign service careers, Keat recommended learning a foreign language — particularly Farsi, Arabic, Korean, or Mandarin Chinese — and taking government and economics classes.
Keat’s experiences through his career were unique from the average person’s, but they caused him to miss out on some U.S. popular culture while abroad.
“There are people from my generation who will talk to me about movies or TV shows, and I won’t have the faintest idea what they’re talking about because I wasn’t in the U.S. when they were popular,” Keat said.
However, Keat overall is thankful that his career enabled him to have experiences, live in foreign countries, and gain skills he could not have had any other way.
“You don’t get bored,” Keat said. “You’re not doing the same thing for your entire life. You go to different countries and do very different things from one site to another. And I found that very rewarding.”
Sophomore Julia Cinquegrani is the Campus Life Editor. Her email is email@example.com.