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Graduate works her way up in the Foreign Service to a coveted post

By Katherine Hedland Hansen '88


Joyce Barr always knew she wanted to see the world. As a young graduate working for an insurance company, Barr ’76 set her sights on a career in the Foreign Service. The first step was passing the rigorous test, which some pessimists warned her she’d never do.

“I decided I would take the test for five years, and if nothing happened, I would do something else,” said Barr, 52.

After her third attempt, she got a familiarly disappointing letter saying she had failed. Then two days later came a surprise phone call with the news that she’d been sent the wrong letter. Her years of work had paid off, and she joined the Foreign Service at a time when women of color made up a small percentage of the employees.

"It's very exciting, but it's not without cost. It's a strong commitment you're always on duty. If something happens in the middle of the night, you get the call."

Twenty-five years later, Barr speaks Swedish and Russian, has earned two master’s degrees from Harvard University and the National Defense University, and has been around the world, serving State Department posts in Europe, Africa, Asia and the United States.

She just assumed one of the department’s top positions – an ambassadorship. She is the ambassador to Namibia, an African nation that coincidentally has many other ties to PLU.

“The top of the line is to be an ambassador,” said Barr, who for all her accomplishments is modest and down-to-earth, with a broad smile and keen sense of humor.

She assumed her post in late September and is settling in to life in the democratic southern African country of about 1.8 million people. English is the official language, but there are nine major ethnic groups, many of whom speak in their native tongues. She is based in the capital of Windhoek.

The world has changed drastically in the decades Barr has been in the Foreign Service. She has faced danger, lost friends to terrorism and seen many changes in the United States administration and a dramatic shift in international relations. She also has become used to moving frequently and being far away from friends and family.

“It’s very exciting, but it’s not without cost,” she said. “It’s a strong commitment and you’re always on duty.

If something happens in the middle of the night, you get the call.”

Her first overseas post was in Sweden, and she spent six months learning Swedish in preparation. She worked in the consular section, issuing visas to Swedish nationals and helping American travelers who had lost their passports or needed other aid from the embassy.

“For most people, it might be the only interaction they ever have with an embassy,” she said. “It’s kind of like our front line.”

She most recently served as the counselor for management affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She enjoyed the Malaysian people, cultures and scenery, but there were increased concerns about security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Among her posts, she was administrative officer at the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. She had to learn Russian for that job.

“I spent 44 weeks learning Russian when I was in my 40s,” she said with a laugh, admitting it was easier to pick up the Swedish when she was in her 20s.

Her career has also included positions in Washington, D.C. As a Pearson Fellow she worked in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, where she focused on the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa and on trade development. She also worked on human rights and international organization affairs at the State Department.

Barr also has spent time in trouble spots. She was based in Sudan during the start of the first Gulf War and was evacuated along with all other Americans. The logistics of moving everyone and their belongings on short notice were a challenge.

“It was more stressful than scary,” she said.

The 1988 terrorist bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa hit Barr hard. Terrorists struck the embassy in Kenya and another in Tanzania, killing 224 people, including 12 Americans. Some 5,000 people were injured. Barr had served in Kenya, which was one of her favorite posts.

“Before all the violence, it was easy to navigate,” she said. “Kenyans are very open. I knew some of the Americans and almost all of the Kenyans who died. It was overwhelming.”

She had considered an assignment to Tanzania, and would have been there when that embassy was bombed, but instead was sent to Turkmenistan.

“That shook the entire State Department up,” she said. “Embassies that had been considered a low threat for terrorism had become targets. Kenya wasn’t on the radar, and neither was Tanzania. We changed a lot of our procedures in response to these bombings.”

With the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq War, Americans are much more aware of the potential dangers internationally.

“Now I think it’s the same story all over the world – Americans have to pay closer attention to their surroundings,” she said. “Terrorism changed security for everyone.”

She is careful not to discuss politics, but concedes, “It’s more challenging these days to be an American diplomat.”

This life can be hard on families and relationships, admits Barr, who is divorced and does not have children.

“When there’s a crisis at home and they call you, by the time you get back, it can be too late.”

She keeps in touch with family and friends, visiting when she’s on break from work and encourages them to travel to her often exotic posts. E-mail has made it much easier to keep up.

Barr rekindled her relationship with PLU and visited campus during a trip home to Tacoma over the summer. She met with representatives of the Norway-Namibia Project, which studies the Nordic approach to peace and democracy and said she was impressed with PLU’s connections to Namibia.

The joint project between PLU, the University of Namibia and Norway’s Hedmark College was established in 2001 to enable students to become world citizens, be aware of global problems and commit to creating constructive responses to these problems in the spirit of democracy and peace.

PLU professors train Namibian teachers in rural schools and PLU students are going on exchanges with the other universities. Namibian professors have been to PLU, and a PLU presidential delegation visited Namibia last year.

Barr hopes to have the chance to meet with Namibian graduates of PLU, many of whom hold high governmental positions, and to meet with current students and faculty when they are in the country.

She encourages others to consider a career in the Foreign Service. The initial test requires broad knowledge of subjects, and her liberal arts education helped.

“In that respect, PLU is perfect because you know a little bit about everything,” she said. “You know how to think and reason.”

The opportunities for travel, learning and service to her country are well worth the accompanying hardships.

“I think it’s an excellent career,” she said. “People should consider it. The U.S. needs its very best people coming in to help us keep our borders safe and protect Americans in other countries.”

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© Scene 2004  •  Pacific Lutheran University  •  Winter 2004

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