2009 Distinguished Alumni Award Honoree
In war and peace, around the globe, Ambassador Jean Wilkowski MA’44 has given her career in service to her nation — even though it’s not the career she’d initially desired.
A native of Rhinelander, Wisconsin, Wilkowski earned her bachelor’s degree at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College of Terre Haute, Indiana, before beginning her professional life as a public relations director and teacher at the newly established Barry College (today Barry University) in Miami Shores, Florida. She taught a popular news-writing class at the school, and coached swimming, tennis, and horseback riding, but it was the PR work that she found most rewarding, noting that “I was pleased and satisfied at the frequency with which the Miami Herald used the news stories I was generating about Barry.”
Between semesters, she traveled back and forth to Madison to study journalism at the UW’s prestigious School of Journalism. The Second World War was then at its height, and she hoped to find a more glamorous job as a foreign correspondent.
After receiving her MA, however, a chance encounter changed the course of her career. While back in Miami, she met a group of eminent Catholic historians who were engaged in rest and evaluation at Barry after teaching in Peru. One of them, a priest, noted her keen interest in international relations and her Catholic educational background and suggested she apply for a position with the U.S. Foreign Service.
Feeling a pull to serve her country in wartime, Wilkowski headed to Washington, D.C., to explore the opportunities.
“The man who interviewed me told me I was lucky,” she says. “Because of the war, they were ‘scraping the bottom of the barrel’ — those were his words — taking 4-Fs [men whose health made them unfit for military service] and women as vice consuls. But I didn’t dare to take offense at being put at the bottom of the barrel. And so in spite of that — and even though I didn’t know exactly what a vice consul did — I enrolled in the foreign service training course.”
Wilkowski soon found herself stationed in Trinidad, where the United States operated a small consulate and a large naval base. There she learned the ins and outs of diplomatic service, before moving up to larger embassies in South America and Europe. She soon developed an expertise in commercial affairs, working with coffee exporters in Bogotá, Colombia; manufacturers in Milan, Italy; fruit growers in Santiago, Chile; and airline executives in Rome. She also witnessed a revolution in Colombia and a war in Honduras, saw the growth of the Cold War in Europe and helped negotiate the expansion of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, forerunner of the World Trade Organization.
By the 1970s, the State Department thought so highly of her work that she was elevated to the position of ambassador to Zambia, making her the first woman to head an American mission to an African nation. She held the position from 1972 to 1979.
“Zambia was hardly a backwater posting,” she says. “It was then at the heart of several liberation wars in the surrounding countries of southern Africa — Rhodesia, Namibia, Mozambique, and Angola were all trying to gain black majority rule and independence, making Zambia a key listening post.”
Wilkowski and her fellow diplomats in the region developed assessments and recommendations in reports to Washington that helped change U.S. policy in southern Africa — a change announced by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger while on a visit to Wilkowski’s embassy in Lusaka, Zambia, in April 1976.
“The new policy moved the United States from an ambiguous, lukewarm rhetorical position to one of clear commitment to cooperate and help in advancing liberation and majority rule in the region,” she says.
In the following years, Wilkowski continued to serve the State Department through an assignment at the United Nations, helping to organize the U.S. policy position for a world conference on science and technology, where she acted as coordinator of preparations and deputy chief of the U.S. delegation.
After her retirement from the foreign service, she continued to play a role in international commerce, as a member of the board of directors of the multinational food corporation CPC/Best Foods (formerly known as the Corn Products Company, now part of Unilever), and the international development organization VITA (Volunteers in Technical Assistance). Along with fellow foreign service officers, she also served on the board of DACOR (Diplomatic and Consular Officers, Retired). She is the only woman to have received DACOR’s Foreign Service Cup, an award honoring her work in the private sector.
She has also received six honorary degrees, and finally returned to writing, publishing her autobiography, Abroad for Her Country, in April 2008.
“When I speak with students today,” she says, noting the long path that took her away from classic journalism, “I often tell them: don’t expect to do what you’ve got your heart set on. I was much better prepared for journalism than I was for foreign service. But life gives you things you aren’t prepared for and must learn along the way.”