The Foreign Service, Civil Service, and DACOR Foreign Service Cup awards is a key part of the Foreign Affairs Day ceremony. Photo by Luis A. Jimenez Jr.
By Amanda McCarthy and Mahvish S. Khan
Held annually on the first Friday of May, Foreign Affairs Day brings together Department of State retirees, domestic and overseas employees, and colleagues from all foreign affairs agencies to celebrate and honor their dedicated service and sacrifice.
Deputy Special Events Coordinator Shelia Moyer, Special Events Coordinator Shirley Lisenby, and Human Resources Specialist Jennifer Eckert in the Bureau of Global Talent Management’s Executive Office began planning for the 2023 Foreign Affairs Day a few months after the 2022 event ended. As seasoned Foreign Affairs Day coordinators, Moyer and Lisenby seamlessly adapted the in-person event into virtual and hybrid programs during the COVID-19 pandemic. This year’s event was the first to be held fully in person since 2019.
“Since this was the first year back after 3 years, we didn’t go with a full scale of what we normally would do,” said Lisenby. “You have to be flexible, because you may have guest speakers that you really want to do this program and then for some reason travel comes up or something happens, you have to be flexible enough to say, ‘things are going to change.’”
Eckert joined her colleagues halfway into their planning for the 2022 event, so this was her first time planning for the in-person event.
“The event planning brought me right back to my former eligible family member days as a community liaison coordinator,” said Eckert. “My main role was managing all of the paper that came with this special day. I worked with an amazing (and patient) IT team on creating a QR code for the event program. As we were getting closer to the event, I was the volunteer coordinator.”
A main part of the planning is working with sponsor organizations—the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), DACOR, and the Senior Living Foundation—to see how they plan to support the day’s activities. Reserving rooms up to a year in advance, creating a program, coordinating equipment, working with security, soliciting volunteers, inviting principals, and organizing every aspect of the day requires meticulous attention to detail.
“My favorite part of planning this event is sitting down with all of the colleagues across the Department who are going to play a critical role, you get to talk about lessons learned,” said Moyer. “Often times you get to meet people who have just arrived in the Department, so it’s an opportunity to get fresh ideas and what they can bring to the table to make it different yet better.”
After months of coordination, the team was able to see their efforts come to fruition as foreign affairs professionals gathered in person for the 58th anniversary celebration, May 5. The program began at the AFSA wall in the C Street lobby of the Harry S Truman Building. Secretary of State Antony Blinken provided opening remarks.
“To every member of our foreign affairs agencies, whether you’re serving now or whether you served in the past, thank you,” said Blinken. “Thank you for the critical work that you do. Thank you for your dedication, your professionalism, your patriotism, all that you bring to our missions around the world.”
Blinken mentioned how serving as a diplomat—especially in today’s world—requires courage. Colleagues are currently in war zones, under foreign surveillance, amid humanitarian crises, and in the aftermath of natural disasters.
“Our diplomats face these situations with tremendous heart. With compassion, with decency, focusing not on themselves, but on helping the people around them,” he said. “And for generations, our diplomats have carried on despite danger, despite difficulty.”
Blinken spoke of the two individuals that were added to the wall this year, Thomas Wallis and Elbridge Lee, both of whom died from complications related to COVID-19 in 2021. Following his speech, Blinken and AFSA President Eric Ruben placed a wreath at the wall in honor of Wallis, Lee, and all 312 individuals whose names are memorialized on the wall—those who made the ultimate sacrifice for America.
The event continued in the Dean Acheson Auditorium, where Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Global Talent Marcia S. Bernicat greeted everyone attending in person and online. She noted that she was thrilled to be gathering in “3D” again to celebrate the contributions of the foreign affairs community. Bernicat brought attention to the astounding size of the community, which includes more than 77,000 current employees of the Department, along with Foreign Service colleagues from USAID, the Departments of Commerce and Agriculture, and the U.S. Agency for Global Media. The community also includes many retired friends and colleagues.
“Together, we work to promote a more peaceful, prosperous, and freer world on behalf of the American people,” said Bernicat. “Diplomacy is not for the faint of heart. As we’ve seen most recently in Sudan, it often puts our people in harm’s way. We do it because we believe in public service, and we believe in our foreign affairs mission. We are driven by a desire to make a difference and to serve our country.”
Bernicat invited DACOR President James Dandridge II to introduce the winner of the 2023 DACOR Foreign Service Cup, Ambassador Aurelia Brazeal.
“It’s a pleasure for DACOR to return to the Department after COVID-19 and to recognize the first African American woman career Foreign Service officer to be promoted into the senior Foreign Service, and the first to be nominated as an ambassador,” he said.
Brazeal had a distinguished 40-year Foreign Service career with the Department, attaining the rank of career minister before she retired. She served as deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs, first dean of the Leadership and Management School at the Foreign Service Institute, dean of Senior Seminar, and more. In retirement, she works with the Charles B. Rangel and Thomas R. Pickering Fellowship Programs to bring a diverse cadre of talented people to the Foreign Service. She is also involved in many foreign affairs associations and groups, and continues to mentor upcoming leaders.
In her acceptance speech, Brazeal outlined how her own experience as a Black citizen of America shaped her view of how knowledge of civil rights is vital to a Foreign Service career.
“I am a child of the 1960s, having grown up under segregation,” she began. “There was no question in my family that Black history was American history.”
Brazeal paraphrased James Baldwin to sum up her view of patriotism that came as a result of coming of age in that period.
“Patriotism requires constant reflection of the ways we are falling short of our ideals, values, and principles. And to love one’s country means we have to critique it, preferably together, so we can move closer to fulfilling those ideals,” she said. Foreign Service officers and civil servants must know comprehensive U.S. history to remain credible to foreign leaders and audiences.
After Brazeal’s speech, Bernicat invited Paula Jacobs, executive director of the Senior Living Foundation, to say a few words. Jacobs began her speech with anecdotes about individuals to demonstrate how large an impact the Senior Living Foundation has on individual lives.
“A recent widow unsure of how to pay her mortgage, as she awaits her survivor benefits; a spouse struggles to care for her lifelong partner as their health is declining; a retiree whose annuity is not quite enough to cover the rising cost of housing, utilities, food, and medical care; [a Foreign Service officer] serving in Estonia, who now has to worry about when her mother returns to her home after a stroke. These are examples of the Senior Living Foundation cases, and what we do to help people each and every day,” said Jacobs, highlighting how the foundation has provided guidance and support of the Foreign Service community, following each case with compassion, confidentiality, and dignity for 35 years.
Bernicat then invited Sharon Hardy, recipient of the 2023 Director General Civil Service Cup to the stage.
“Sharon’s distinguished Civil Service career of 35 years was centered around developing and empowering our greatest resource, our people,” said Bernicat. “From her early days as a personnel resources’ specialist with the Air Force Intelligence Agency to her last assignment heading the Department’s Professional Development Unit, Sharon sought to support and develop those who serve wherever she went.”
During her time at the Department, Hardy not only served as the Department’s presidential appointments officer for more than a decade, she was also the keeper of the Great Seal of the United States.
Hardy said she was truly honored to be considered for the award, and reflected on her years with the Department.
“When I reflect upon my time here, one word comes to mind: grateful. Upon graduating from college, I knew that I would land a job, but I had no idea what amazing opportunities would be in store for me when I arrived at State. Soon after, I learned that I would have a career, and not just a job,” she said, while also thanking the many colleagues, friends, supervisors, and mentors who helped her through her career.
In her introduction of Ambassador Harry K. Thomas Jr., the recipient of the 2023 Director General Foreign Service Cup, Bernicat described him as a Foreign Service legend, as well as her mentor, role model, and friend. During his 34-year career, Thomas represented the United States abroad three times, and he also served in senior positions in the Department as well as the White House. His leadership roles included service as director of the Operations Center, director for South Asia at the National Security Council, director general of the Foreign Service and director of human resources, and executive secretary and special assistant to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. He retired in 2018 with the rank of career minister.
“Ambassador Thomas is a rare Foreign Service breed—an ambivert, who is just as comfortable working in Washington as he is overseas,” said Bernicat. “Harry perfected his proficiency in the three Ps—policy, process, and people—wherever he went.”
She expanded on the last, saying that it was Thomas’ dedication to building future leaders that has left the greatest mark on the Department.
“He has personally mentored scores of officers—and many of these have ascended to the senior ranks by heeding his wise counsel.”
Thomas began his speech with a shoutout to colleagues, including those who had passed on, and to his wife and family. In his speech he said that his first love was his family, and that he, like all Foreign Service officers, could never repay their love and sacrifice.
“The State Department’s mission is to protect Americans abroad. We must be the best role model for global interaction. We seek a secure world—a better place, for our allies and partners, and are at the forefront of a foreign policy that is hard-nosed and sympathetic,” he said.
He applauded Bernicat and her team for recruiting a team that has the necessary skills to accomplish the American mission, and expressed his appreciation of the new generation of diplomats for their demonstrated courage and innovation.
“You have the resilience to succeed in any environment, and the humility to understand the importance of listening to others while producing mutually beneficial policy that will keep America and our partners strong,” he said.
He underscored the outsize impact U.S. foreign development spending has on marginalized communities, and how it helps counter the malign influence of adversaries. In closing, he said he would like to see a Department and a Foreign Service that is representative of America’s exceptionalism and diversity.
Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Richard Verma provided closing remarks, beginning with words of appreciation.
“I’m just so grateful for your lifetime of service and the impact that you’ve had, and I’m so inspired, really, by your remarks,” he said. “It was a moving ceremony to start this morning with Secretary Blinken, and to be reminded of the incredible sacrifice that people in this Department have made over many many years.”
Verma also highlighted his own immigrant experience, describing how his dad came to the United States with a few dollars and a bus ticket in his pocket. He said his parents started with nothing.
“The thought that their kid would go back to represent the United States in the country that they came from, that is the longest of long shots, and I will be forever grateful to the Department for giving me that opportunity.”
Bernicat closed the ceremony by thanking her team, without whose work none of this would have been possible.
At the end of the program, Moyer, Lisenby, and Eckert took a breath, and reflected on the unique opportunities that the day offers.
“I really liked seeing the energy in the halls as I was moving from location to location,” said Eckert. “I had two really good conversations with retirees as I walked with them and learned not only about Foreign Affairs Day programs past, but their time with the Department.”
Planning for next year’s event is already underway, and regardless of venue, Foreign Affairs Day will continue to welcome back the community and serve as a day of reflection, gratitude, and knowledge of those that came before.
Amanda McCarthy is the multimedia editor at State Magazine. Mahvish S. Khan is the production editor at State Magazine.