Having highlighted some of the Public Diplomacy Council’s new Rising Professional members this summer, I am shifting the series’ focus to feature several of the PDC’s more experienced members in the coming weeks. My intent to highlight the importance of intergenerational learning echoes PDC President Sherry Mueller’s message in her book Working World, coauthored with Mark Overmann.
I was also inspired by Olivia Chavez’s interview with Dr. Sherry Mueller (“Wanted: Young Professionals with a Passion for Public Diplomacy”). As the Public Diplomacy Council pursues its mission of establishing understanding between nations via individuals, these conversations with experienced PDC members should serve to enhance our understanding of one another within the PDC community.
I am thrilled to feature Marilyn Saks-McMillion this week.
(Betsy) Tell us about yourself.
(Marilyn) First, Betsy, I would like to welcome you to Washington, because I may be one of the first people you will meet who was actually born in Washington, DC! I’ve now come full circle and am back in DC after living in California, New Jersey, Barcelona, and Beijing.
When I was 11, my family moved to Los Angeles, and I lived in California for quite some time. I got my Bachelor’s at UC Berkeley and then went on to San Francisco State University, where I got my Master’s in Teaching English as a Foreign Language. After moving to New Jersey, where I did graduate work at Rutgers, I accepted a teaching position in Barcelona at the Binational Center. Later, when I was teaching English as a Foreign Language at Georgetown University, they asked me to go to Beijing on a teacher-training program, which was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse.
So, that brings me back to DC. I returned after my year in Beijing in 1982 and I’ve been here ever since. I just retired this summer after 24 years of working on the International Visitor Leadership Program with World Learning.
How were you introduced to the Public Diplomacy Council?
Through Sherry Mueller, whom I’ve known for nearly 30 years. She mentioned it to me at a conference this past January, so I filed it away in my mental Rolodex. Then, at my virtual farewell party this summer, Sherry was amongst the invited guests; her remarks clinched it for me, so I just joined last month.
How or where did you first learn about Public Diplomacy?
When I was in Barcelona, I was teaching English at what was then the largest binational center in Europe. We had classes morning til night for kids, mothers, university students, and professionals, but in my second year there, the position of Academic Advisor for the US Consulate became available. I applied and got the position, so I was able to do that as well as teaching full time. That was my first exposure to that kind of work outside of the classroom; I was advising adults who were interested in studying in the U.S., so I would help them find an English language program or help them explore university possibilities. It was that experience that showed me what I am really interested in.
What is the best definition of ‘Public Diplomacy’ that you have ever heard or read?
I suppose it’s trying to make the world a smaller place, a less foreign place, one handshake at a time — that may have even been something that Sherry came up with — between different cultures and different nationalities. There’s a saying that one arrives a stranger and leaves as a friend, and I think that’s part of it, too. I also think that at a more granular level, it’s representing your country more freely than you could if you were in formal diplomacy.
Which experience listed on your resume is your favorite?
Certainly the one that I’ve been doing the longest, for nearly twenty-four years, which is working on the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). At my retirement party, a former colleague and former supervisor of mine said he’s never met anyone who was more perfectly matched to the work. It really did engage both my head and heart. It was an outlet for my natural curiosity about the world and my creativity. I’d like to describe it as the best lifelong education program I could have designed for myself, because I was constantly learning about new topics, such as the Codex Alimentarius, river-borne infectious diseases, or helicopter safety. Learning how to quickly come up to speed enough to be able to design a meaningful program for the people who were coming became a challenge, and it was really exciting to be able to learn all these things. The IVLP has been my favorite, although I’ve taken a lot from all of the work that I’ve done in my career.
In all your teaching experience with English as a Foreign Language, have you found it to be true that the teachers learn just as much, if not more than their students?
I could go on and on about the things that I learned during my year of teaching English in China! Since at that time learning English meant focusing on grammar, there were grammatical points that the students understood much better than I could explain. However, my job was to focus on improving their listening skills and their speaking skills. At one point I was invited to address the entire Beijing Second Foreign Language Institute student body, and I was asked to talk about the first space shuttle, of which I knew nothing.
In trying to figure out how I would talk about the space shuttle to help these students improve their listening skills, I started to talk about what was happening: what I experienced when the space shuttle first went off, what the reaction was — totally non-scientific. And then I said, “Do you have any questions?” I hadn’t been in China long enough to fully grasp the sense of losing face in public, and so there were no questions. I quickly realized that no one’s going to ask a question in an audience for fear of making a mistake, so I said, “ I tell you what, why don’t you write your questions down on a piece of paper, pass them down to the end of the row, and we’ll collect them at the front of the auditorium,” so I answered their questions that way.
Learning those kinds of cultural cues and being open to them is really important. One of the questions that I got which I remember to this day was, “What would happen if the space shuttle encountered a UFO?” Knowing that UFOs are taken seriously in parts of China, I knew enough not to laugh. I answered, “You know, I really don’t know, but if I could guess, they would probably want to make contact.”
What are several lessons you learned the hard way, and how would you translate these lessons into career advice for young people wanting to pursue a career in the field?
When I was in China, I came up with three Ps: Patience, Persistence, and Politeness. I found that if I applied all three of those to a problem that I was having, 98% of the time I could get what I wanted accomplished, and in the 1 or 2 percent where I hit a wall, I understood that there was something underlying that I wasn’t privy to, because there’s no word for “no” in Chinese; they use the word “not,” and so not plus the verb is how you say “no.”
Some other things are to maintain an open and curious mind by being a constant learner, and lastly, to work well with a variety of personalities, including those that may be especially challenging. Something I learned from my father is that honey works better than vinegar. It’s always important to maintain your sense of professionalism, graciousness, and sense of humor.
What is the best book or article you have ever read about Public Diplomacy? Your response may even be a publication which you authored!
Five years ago I was approached by Robert Zimmerman, who was putting together a series of articles for the Foreign Service Journal on “soft power,” so I wrote about the impact of international exchanges, so I wrote an article about the IVLP, with which I was most familiar. I talked about some of the impacts of international exchange, which goes back to being a citizen diplomat. You take the impacts that you have on visitors to the country on faith, because you can’t follow every person who’s come on one of your programs. The article talked about a couple of visitors of mine, one of whom went on to win a Nobel Peace Prize, and another who became the president of his country.
If the PDC had a talent show, what would your act be?
I would probably read haiku poems that I’d written. It’s something that I that I’ve done for colleagues when they retire, I would write a series of haiku poems for them. I wouldn’t dare sing or dance!
Imagine an alternate life for yourself; which career would you have pursued if money, ability, or other limitations were not factors?
When I was a kid, we started learning French in elementary school, and I was convinced I was going to become an interpreter at the UN, until I grew up and realized you need more than just studying in high school and college for that job.
I would want my alternate career to be something that would allow me to travel domestically and internationally. I thought about being a bilingual interpreter, but I think more appropriate for the skills that I drifted toward would be as a trainer for aspiring public diplomacy practitioners.
Elizabeth (Betsy) Cornelius is pursuing her M.A. in International Affairs Policy and Analysis at American University’s School of International Service. There, she applies her experience in Germany and Austria in her research assistantship with the Transatlantic Policy Center.