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Sojourner takes up new residence - and new mission


A long line of firsts fills everyone's life -- first words, first kisses and many first impressions.

Brenda Brown Schoonover's life has been filled with firsts, too, but not the typical firsts. Hers have not only shaped her life but have helped her shape the lives of others.

"I have experienced several turning points in my life," Schoonover said. "Some have come from conscious decisions, others through opportunities, good fortune and good luck."

Schoonover currently represents the U.S. State Department as an ambassador in residence at the University through the Diplomat-in-Residence program -- the latest in her long line of firsts. Schoonover educates students on foreign and civil service by relating her own experiences in the Peace Corps and foreign service.

Schoonover's presence at the University is only a small feat when compared to the window of opportunities she opened for herself by never being afraid to take the first step toward getting what she wants.

A soft-spoken woman with endless patience, Brenda is always well-dressed, often wearing a hat or scarf that would make an onlooker wonder where she had been to purchase something so unique. She commands a quiet authority, and people step aside to let her exit the room first.

Broadening her horizons

Schoonover grew up in a small town outside Baltimore, Md., where she was one of the first seven black students to integrate an all-white high school enrolling more than 3,000.

"That move broadened my horizons and gave me more extensive educational opportunities," Schoonover said.

Schoonover said she wasn't the best student but a fairly good student. A seemingly modest statement from someone who was chosen to give the high school commencement speech and received a scholarship to the college or university of her choice within the Maryland state school system.

She attended what was then Morgan State College, a school with a historically black student population. "I choose that (college) because my high school had been academically rewarding, but it had been socially limited," Schoonover said. In college she decided that whatever she would do with her life, it would serve and help others.

Schoonover could imagine herself doing almost anything. She dreamed of being a lawyer or writer, but chose to major in English and education.

"I think I wanted to be a teacher because that's what I was conditioned (to do)," she said. Teaching was one of the most prominent professions for women and Schoonover knew a job would always be available to her. This was in the latter fifties and early sixties.

As a college senior, Schoonover met many foreign students, one of whom was Hermie Andrews, a student from India. He was one of the most put-together people she had ever met, Schoonover said, and his philosophy of helping people sparked her interest in going overseas to help others. She also met many African students at a nearby university, encounters that sparked her interest in going to Africa.

Toward the end of her college career, Schoonover watched a documentary on college students teaching in Africa and decided she, too, wanted to teach in Africa.

The question was: How was she going to go abroad?

Worldly lessons

Schoonover graduated in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy was starting the Peace Corps. She saw this as the perfect opportunity to go abroad, so she took the written Peace Corps exam. Twelve hours later, she was offered a position in the Philippines as one of the Peace Corps' first members.

She accepted the position and began training in teaching English as a second language and taking courses in cultural sensitivity and sociology.

Schoonover was assigned to teach English to Filipino teachers, but a change of plans placed her in the role of fifth- and sixth-grade science and English teacher. Although she was not in Africa, she was teaching English abroad.

Schoonover and other volunteers ran a summer day-camp for the students. She also began collecting books for a town library. Schoonover called companies, family and friends from home to send athletic equipment for the camp and books for the library. She even convinced the United States Information Agency (USIA) to lend books to the library.

Of course, there were many adventures while traveling to and in the Philippines.

Her layover in Guam made a lasting impression. "(When) I got to Guam, I had never seen a lizard before, at least not the kind that hang on the wall, and I was just fascinated but a little bit queasy about the lizard," she said.

When she arrived in the Philippines, the food surprised her even more. In the town of 10,000 where she was assigned, there was one refrigerator, and it did not belong to the Peace Corps. The volunteers found their own way to make the rice more appealing. "We would take the rice after dinner and put canned milk on it and sugar and eat it, so we all gained weight," Schoonover said. "We craved peanut butter."

Before returning to the U.S. after serving in the Phillipines, Schoonover traveled to an assortment of countries and cities, including Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, Bombay, New Delhi, Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, Jordan and Jerusalem, and Greece. She enjoyed Hong Kong so much she had to wire her mother to send more money. Her mother replied with one sentence, "Don't buy Hong Kong."

When she finally returned to the United States, Schoonover was chosen as one of 10 returning Peace Corps volunteers to work with the Cardozo Teaching Project, a federal government program in which returning volunteers used their overseas training to bring a new perspective to teaching English in inner-city Washington.

Having gone to school in a small town, Schoonover found teaching at Cardozo difficult. "I decided: `I think I'm going to try something else. If I continue this now, I will probably be a teacher forever, but I just want to try something else.'"

After one year at Cardozo, Schoonover accepted a position with the Peace Corps staff as administrative assistant in the Office for Talent Search.

One year later, she was packing her bags for an assignment in Tanzania. In a country with just 120 miles of paved road, Schoonover said she had some "very, very interesting experiences." She drove a Land Rover across terrain and over bridges that she thought would just collapse. But because she was 26 years old, she said, she did not give these things a second thought.

Schoonover dealt with more than just overseas work and helping the people of Tanzania. She also dealt with conflicts between volunteers and locals and among volunteers.

She was also responsible for initiating a school partnership program where schools in the United States raised $2,000 to $3,000 to buy construction materials for schools. Several schools were built before Schoonover left Tanzania.

Schoonover loved working for the Peace Corps but said her most rewarding experience in Tanzania was meeting her husband Richard Schoonover, who was then working with the USIA.

She met Richard at meetings and had known him a few months when she was assigned as director of the School Partnership Program in Washington and returned to the United States. When Richard completed his term in Tanzania a few months later and returned to Washington, the two were married.

"My marriage to Dick of 30 years was by far the best decision I ever made," Schoonover said. "Dick is all that I could have asked for in a husband, friend, teacher and life-companion."

When Richard received his next USIA assignment to Nigeria, Brenda quit her job in the Peace Corps and followed him. At this time spouses were not allowed to hold positions in the foreign service, and Brenda often found herself in limbo, either completely out of work or underemployed.

Brenda also found job hunting a task when she returned to the United States. "By the time we came back from Tunisia, I began to realize that...every time we moved, I was not guaranteed employment, and when we'd go back to the United States, people would not understand what I'd done (abroad), even if it were volunteer work. So, I was losing ground professionally."

She accepted a job in Arlington County, Va., at an affirmative action office, but she found the work unrewarding because many people in the county, she said, were not committed to the cause.

In 1977, five years after the U.S. State Department changed its policy against allowing married officers, Brenda applied to the foreign service.

"If I were going to go overseas, I either had to have a career that was compatible with my husband's or every time we'd come back, I'd be looking for another Arlington County," Brenda said.

Brenda accepted a position as a foreign officer but because Richard was the senior officer, she followed him on assignments and waited for a position to open up for her. When her husband's assignment ended in one country, she would leave her position without pay to go with him and wait for another position.

"We had a couple of principles that we were operating on," Richard said. "One was, we're not going to separate, and two, for the moment, we're going where the larger salary is."

Mrs. Ambassador

Things changed for the Schoonovers in 1996. Richard retired from the foreign service, but Brenda's career was beginning to take off. In December 1996, at the request of a senior official, Brenda's name was submitted for ambassadorship. After 11 months in review by the Deputy Committee, the White House and the Senate, the title was hers and she became the first black female ambassador to Togo, a small country on the West African coast.

Brenda first heard she received the ambassadorship watching C-SPAN. As the Senate voted, a list of approved proposal numbers moved across the television screen. Richard was certain one of the approved numbers was Brenda's ambassadorship. One call to the Congressional Liaison Office confirmed her approval.

As ambassador, Brenda worked to ensure presidential elections were democratic and human rights protected. She worked to ban female genital mutilation, a long-standing ritual in Togo. And because Togo is such a small country, she worked to ensure peace among its neighboring countries.

Brenda's popularity with the Togolese is legendary. "She loves to dance and the Togolese people loved to watch her enjoying herself on the dance floor," said Diane Mooney, Brenda's office manager in Togo. "It made them feel that she was approachable and human."

National Togolese television often broadcast Brenda's activities, and she received daily letters from the Togolese, thanking her for her kindness to their country. They also gave her gifts of appreciation, the most interesting being a goat.

To hear Brenda talk about her two-and-a- half years in Togo is like a journey for the listener without ever leaving home. She can take the listener there with her words, and the distant look in her eyes makes her audience wonder whether she ever left.

Back to college

Her life, she can see now, was a series of turning points that took her to places she could never have imagined as a little girl growing up in a little town outside Baltimore.

Some were guided by conscious decisions, others happened through good fortune or blind luck.

The decision to join the Peace Corps put her on a path that would take her around the world. Now, some 40 years later, her life has come full circle, back to a college campus, only now it is her job to ignite the imagination of students to see the world while serving their country as members of the foreign service.

In August 2000, Brenda came to the University as one of 10 to 12 foreign service officers assigned to a university throughout the United States. Past success of the State Department's recruitment at University job fairs, the diverse ethnic and economic profile of the campus, and a collaborative effort among the Curriculum in International Studies, the Department of History and the Department of Public Policy have made Schoonover's presence here possible, said James Hevia, chair of the Curriculum in International Studies.

The Diplomat-in-Residence program provides opportunities to diplomats as well as students, Ambassador William Itoh said. "Sometimes there is a gap between the university faculty perception on foreign policy issues and a practitioner's perception," he said. Itoh serves as the ambassador in residence to the University through the Kenan Institute.

Foreign service looks to recruit people who are outgoing and willing to entertain their hosts. Officers should have good judgement and good writing and reporting skills no matter what specialty of the service they enter.

But while the service is looking for people interested in policy matters, Schoonover stressed that it has all kinds of jobs for all kinds of people and can meet almost anyone's major.

"We want the State Department to reflect on society, so we want a diverse work force, and we've tried very hard for that, but it's not always easy," she said.

And as her friend from India did for her when she was in college, Schoonover wants to help students see the world through a window that allows them to dream of bigger possibilities for themselves.


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