A New Career Every Three Years
May 26, 2006
WM spoke with Steve Fox ’69 in Washington, DC as he was headed back to the office to set up meetings for the United Nations General Assembly and write up talking points for a Bush Administration official’s talk to the Arab League. It was a typical evening for the State Department’s Deputy Director of Regional Affairs in the Near East.
In almost three decades as a foreign service officer, Fox has worked in India, Japan, Taiwan, and China, and with the Department of Homeland Security in the United States, among other assignments.
"Every two or three years I bid on a new assignment, and I get a new career," Fox says gleefully when listing the many attractions of his work. "And no day is ever the same."
WM: How did you get from Wabash to the foreign service?
Steve Fox: I had no clue about what I wanted to do when I left Wabash. Phil Mikesell wanted me to go off to Vanderbilt to become a political scientist, and I studied there for a year, but I had my eye on government service.
I joined the Peace Corps in 1971, served in Thailand, and liked it so much I stayed in for four years. I discovered three things there: Uncle Sam is not a bad boss; I like living over-seas; and, in spite of my grades at Wabash, I could learn languages.
From the Peace Corps to the foreign service?
First, I went to law school. I got interested in working for the State Department, and the LSAT and the Civil Service Exam were scheduled for the same day. I opted for law school, but I went there to get into the foreign service.
Is law school a typical path into the foreign service?
About 10 to 15% of foreign service officers are lawyers, and I knew that the law degree would keep other international options open; there are many American law firms around the world, and other government agencies and international development organizations need lawyers.
After law school I got a couple of one-year jobs. I clerked for a federal judge, then I took the Civil Service exam. I got into the State Department and have never looked back.
Was there a moment when you knew that foreign service was your calling?
My first summer, the summer of 1981, I was assigned to the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou, but they sent me up to fill in at Beijing.
This was just two years after the normalization of relations between the U.S. and China. The whole embassy staff was new, and we had so many official visitors—from President Jimmy Carter; the Chief Justice; 135 members of Congress; the first cultural exchange between our two nations; the Wisconsin Dairy Board! Everyone and everything passed through our doors on their way to this new venture. I even interviewed Wang Ru-Jie, the first Chinese student to go to Wabash—I gave him his visa!
I was working with a lot of visiting delegations, briefing members of Congress, at the same time becoming the expert on consular issues in China; I loved it. The newness of China—a learning curve that went up at a 60-degree angle. I got hooked on China and spent my first 10 years there. There was never a dull moment!
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