Rachael Parrish is from the village of Cobden, a small farming community in southern Illinois that is home to the mighty Appleknockers (the local school’s mascot, an overall-wearing man who knocks apples off of trees). The Parrishes have deep roots in the surrounding area, and local community leaders have celebrated the family’s contributions as local business owners and philanthropists by naming schools, parks, and roads after them. However, in order to tell the full story of Rachael’s family you have to start in the warzone of Vietnam.
“I’m the product of an international conflict, so I think it is only fitting that I now work as a diplomat to prevent international conflicts. My parents met during the Vietnam War, where my father was a U.S. helicopter pilot and my mother was a refugee from North Vietnam working for the U.S. military outside of Saigon. She agreed to marry my dad after knowing him for just three months and moved to the United States at the age of 18; my parents have now been married for almost 50 years.”
As the only family with Asian heritage in the entire K-12 school, Rachael and her two older sisters grew up steeped in Midwestern culture but conscious of the fact that few—if any—families in town had a pot of pho on their stoves.
“My mother had a lot of gumption to move around the world and start a new life in a foreign country, and there are so many great stories from that time. When my dad introduced my mom to his family, one of his great aunts asked my mom, ‘Don’t you feel bad that you don’t speak English very well?’ My mother replied, ‘Not at all, because I know none of you can speak any Vietnamese.’ Immigrating to the United States took a lot of strength and I often think about the challenges she faced not just in getting to the United States, but also in creating a life for herself here.”
“My mother was proud to become a U.S. citizen and bring my aunts and grandparents over to the United States. During the war, my mother had to drop out of school in sixth grade in order to earn money and work on the family farm, so education was a priority in our family and something we knew was a privilege that not everybody around the world gets to pursue.”
“Growing up, my parents instilled in me the need to serve our neighbors and our country. My parents were active in our community, volunteering to serve free lunches to international students from the local university, throwing Tet parties for the students at our house, or hosting international students for a real American Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. After retirement, my dad even volunteered to teach an English conversation class to international students. I think my mom’s work with international students was a way of teaching her kids about her culture and also supporting those going through the same culture shock she went through when she first moved to the United States.”
Following in the footsteps of her father, who served in the U.S. military in Vietnam and Korea, Rachael chose to serve her country in the U.S. Foreign Service.
“I decided to major in Asian studies and political science in college, and with that I studied Mandarin and also spent a semester abroad in China. I became interested in the Foreign Service when a former U.S. Ambassador visited my university, and I remember listening to his talk and thinking that I could see myself working as a diplomat.”
“I’ve also been really fortunate to be able to benefit from two of the State Department’s outreach programs. After college graduation, I participated in the State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship program for Mandarin and spent another summer studying the language in China, which then led to a year studying in Beijing at Tsinghua University. Then upon entering graduate school, I was selected to be a State Department Rangel Fellow, which helped fund my studies and prepared me for the Foreign Service.
“Through the fellowship, I participated in a State Department internship at the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi. It had always been a dream of mine to go to Vietnam and take in the sights, culture, smells and tastes that were a part of my heritage. To serve my country in my ancestral homeland and visit the place my parents met… that’s an experience I’ll always cherish.”
After finishing her master’s degree, Rachael entered the Foreign Service as a Political Officer and has served at the U.S. Embassy in Manila, the U.S. Consulate General in Hong Kong, and now the U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Vienna, Austria.
“I feel incredibly privileged to be able to serve my country while also exploring the world. While in the Philippines, I was the human rights officer, and I served as the control officer for our then Special Advisor on International Disability Rights Judith Heumann. She has an incredible story as an international rights activist who worked on the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the United States. Taking her around the Philippines to meet with local disability rights activists was truly inspiring.”
“Some of my fondest memories of Hong Kong involve the incredible local staff at the U.S. Consulate. Whether it was team dim sum or learning Cantonese phrases to keep the visa lines moving efficiently, the Hong Kong local staff are incredibly hard-working, welcoming, and fun!”
After Vietnam, the Philippines, and Hong Kong, Rachael sought a new challenge by moving to Vienna, Austria to serve at the U.S. Mission to International Organizations (UNVIE) and trying her hand at multilateral diplomacy.
“Currently, I work in our International Atomic Energy Agency Section on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy portfolio. I’ve heard multilateral work described as ‘multi-player chess’ and I think that is really apt. It’s fascinating because you are working with people from all over the world with incredibly diverse backgrounds, but it is also very difficult because you have to incorporate multiple perspectives and nuance in each country’s national position. In a way, working in multilateral diplomacy is an argument for diversity and inclusion not only in the workplace but in life in general—bigger challenges, but also bigger rewards.”
During her ongoing service at UNVIE, Rachael hopes to build on her experience and work on preventing international conflicts by engaging directly with our partners and allies.
About the Author: Rachael Parrish is a Foreign Service Officer at the U.S. Department of State. Rachael is currently serving at the U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Vienna, Austria.