US diplomat, Baker native encourages service abroad

Published: Mar. 9, 2016 at 5:12 AM CST|Updated: Mar. 9, 2016 at 2:02 PM CST
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Liberia teachers and student leaders who participated in limited resource farming training in...
Liberia teachers and student leaders who participated in limited resource farming training in 2014 (Source: LSU AgCenter)
A limited resource farmer in Liberia tends to crops. (Source: LSU AgCenter)
A limited resource farmer in Liberia tends to crops. (Source: LSU AgCenter)

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - At first glace, it may not seem that much connects Louisiana to a continent on the other side of the world. Africa is known for its rich cultures, unique resources and constant struggles.

However, Louisiana has several bridges binding the Bayou State to Africa, beginning with a woman named Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

Growing up in Baker, Louisiana, Thomas-Greenfield said she was not looking beyond her hometown until a chance encounter in the 8th grade. It was 1966 and Peace Corps volunteers had come to Baker with African teachers to prepare for an upcoming trip to Swaziland and Somalia. The young Thomas-Greenfield said she got the opportunity to study one of the region's languages with the volunteers.

"That whetted my appetite," she said.

Looking back, she added it was also a turning point in her young life. After graduating from LSU and obtaining a master's degree at the University of Wisconsin, the Baker native joined the US Foreign Service. In her 34-year career, Thomas-Greenfield has worked around the world, with stops in Jamaica, Switzerland and Pakistan, holding several top leadership positions along the way.

Ultimately, her work led her back to the continent that first inspired her, serving in Kenya, Gambia and Nigeria. In 2008 she was appointed as the US ambassador to Liberia. Now Thomas-Greenfield is the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of African Affairs, the State Department's top diplomat in Africa.

The assistant secretary's career was not without challenges. For example, in 1994, she was in Rwanda. With her tall stature, she was mistaken as a Tutsi and nearly killed during the genocide. Thomas-Greenfield said she was taken captive with a machine gun held to her head. She also said she pleaded in her Louisiana accent, attempting to convince her captors she was an American citizen. Eventually, they let her go.

"I kept thinking this is not the way I'm suppose to die. I really thought I was going to die because I had an AK-47 pointed at me with the intention of shooting because they thought I was a Rwandan and thought I was someone they wanted to kill. It changed my life, I think for the better," Thomas-Greenfield explained.

The assistant secretary said that experience empowered her and pointed her on a new mission to create a foreign service as diverse and varied as the American public. That mission, in part, brought her back before students at LSU, encouraging them to look abroad.

"It's about public service. I think every young person ought to have as part of their goal to serve their country. It doesn't have to be in the military. It could be in the Peace Corps. It could be working for a government agency," said Thomas-Greenfield.

Surprisingly, many students at LSU have some of the best resources to help tackle some of the challenges in developing countries. The LSU Ag Center is one of the best examples. It has several international programs that aid agricultural development of struggling areas, including Liberia.

"Some of the challenges that they have in Liberia, they're very similar to our limited resource farmers in Louisiana," said David Picha, the director of the Ag Center's International Program.

The Ag Center established a Liberian program nearly five years ago while Thomas-Greenfield was ambassador. Thanks to a similar sub-tropical climate, the agricultural experts in Louisiana are able to share knowledge, technology and even plants with farmers in Liberia. Picha estimates they've helped improve the livelihood of thousands. It also lays the foundation for what Thomas-Greenfield said is a bright future for Africa.

"Building the knowledge and capacity and learning how to utilize that to the betterment of their society is absolutely fundamental," Picha added.

Thomas-Greenfield believes Africa will be "the center of the center of the universe" in 50 years. She said she's proud of what LSU students are already doing to realize that vision. She also hopes their experiences, like her own, will teach them about overcoming adversity for the better.

"Whether it's Africans who are experiencing genocide or young students who are having difficultly dealing with the challenges of going to school, adversity is not something to hold you back. It's something to make you strong," said Thomas-Greenfield.

The LSU Ag Center also has several students from Liberia who study in Louisiana and then return home to apply what they've learned.

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