Bureau of Public Affairs
Office of Public Liaison
Marin County, California
By Beth Ashley, Marin Independent Journal Staff Writer
[Reprinted with permission of the Marin Independent Journal granted August 28, 2008]
California -- As a baby, Tu Dang was one of the "boat people" who fled the Communist regime in Vietnam.
Today, at 29, she is a Foreign Affairs officer in the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C.
She left Southeast Asia for California, went to schools in Marin County, served as student body president at San Rafael High School and was a member of the Marin County Youth Commission.
Last week, she came back to Marin as a so-called "hometown diplomat," urging young people to follow a career path like her own. "There's so much life beyond Marin," she says.
Her first glimpse of Washington, D.C., was through a high school trip there with Close Up, a program acquainting students with national government.
"Right away, I knew I wanted to live in Washington, I wanted to go to college in Washington."
She received a scholarship to George Washington University, first as an art major, then in the field of international economics. As a student, she studied abroad in Vietnam, Thailand and England.
"I had the international bug, but I had no idea what I would do about it," she says.
After graduation, she joined the Peace Corps and spent three years in Mauritania, an Islamic republic in northwest Africa.
She was there for 9/11. Some of her American colleagues were poorly treated at that time, she says, but her Asian background set her apart. "My diversity was my strength."
She served as a health volunteer in Nouakchott, the nation's capital. During her final year there, she introduced technology training for youth using health Web sites. "They learned about computers and disease prevention at the same time." She then got a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University. "I knew I wanted an international focus and to specialize in Africa - which I've been doing ever since."
She now works in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor for the State Department, particularly on labor affairs. Hers is a civil service position, based domestically, although she travels often to Africa - to Niger, Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire, Zambia, Namibia and South Africa. She meets with officials and industry representatives, trading information with staff in U.S. embassies.
"There are a lot of possibilities, opportunities and options in Africa," she says. Americans tend to see Africa as one monolithic entity, but "Africa has 48 countries, all very different."
The United States tries to promote workers' rights, although many of the countries "do not have the capacity to address these issues or to enforce their own laws."
American industry looks to the State Department for advice on conditions. "If there are a lot of labor violations," she says, "it might not be a good idea to invest there."
Her job, she says, is a bit of a dream come true - living "in the center of everything" in Washington, traveling a lot, meeting prestigious people, "being asked to effect change and to implement policy."
She urges young people to think about the foreign service, or civil service jobs like her own.
"It is one thing to read international news in the newspaper," she says. "It is another thing to be actively engaged."
Released on June 4, 2008