The road to Gambia

Gambia, featured

BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — The St. Pete chapter of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) celebrated receiving its national charter to officially become a part of the organization headquartered in the nation’s capital last Sat., Oct. 24 at The Florida Holocaust Museum.

With the mission to promote, research, preserve, interpret and disseminate information about black life, history and culture to the global community, this month’s meeting featured Patricia Alsup, who was recently appointed by President Obama as the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of The Gambia.

“I want to say how thrilled I am that there is this chapter of ASALH here in St. Petersburg,” said Alsup, who grew up in St. Pete and is the daughter of Dr. Fred Alsup, a pioneer in the integration of Bayfront Medical Center. “I think it’s wonderful because it creates the opportunities for conversations that don’t happen often about the connection between African Americans and Africans.”

With 23 years of Foreign Service to her credit, Alsup has lived in Africa for a total of five years, and was previously in the Gambia from 2005-07. Situated on Africa’s west coast, Gambia is the smallest country on the continent’s mainland.

Eleven students from Gibbs High were on hand as guests of ASALH and Alsup encouraged them to consider a career in Foreign Service, but mainly to stay in school and study hard as a precursor to finding a career path.

“Before I joined the Foreign Service I had eight different jobs,” she stated, addressing the students. “I was all over the place. I was in Milwaukee doing research, I was in Dallas doing strategic planning for an aerospace company, I had an art gallery here. But you don’t have to figure out right away what it is you want to do. You can experiment with things and eventually you’ll find the thing that is right for you.”

Principal Reuben Hepburn from Gibbs High School admitted it was hard to bring only 11 students out of 1,400 to listen to Alsup, but the ones that were chosen “were genuinely interested in what it takes to be an ambassador,” he said of the select students.

Though Alsup conceded that hard work is a necessary part of working in the Foreign Service, she maintained that interpersonal skills were key.

“That’s what really makes a difference when they decide if somebody is going to be an ambassador,” she said, adding that it doesn’t matter how well you know the politics of a particular region or how good you are technically in terms of economics—you must know how to deal with people and be a team player.

A career in foreign service does requires flexibility, Alsup noted, since a foreign service officer may be called upon to change jobs every two or three years.

“Since I was doing that anyway,” she said, “it worked out—it’s the perfect career for me!”

Alsup’s first assignment was in the Dominican Republic where she did consulate work, such as issuing visas to people who want to come to the United States and helping American citizens who are in trouble or have some kind of problem overseas.

Then it was on to Mexico City, where she worked for the treasury department and was there through the Mexican Peso Crisis, which was sparked by the Mexican government’s abrupt devaluation of the peso against the U.S. dollar.  Alsup then found herself in Washington working in the economic bureau before doing duty as a desk officer for seven eastern Caribbean islands.

“The nice thing about being a desk officer is you get to go visit the countries,” Alsup said, “so I got to go to Barbados and St. Lucia and St. Vincent and so on, so it’s been just really a fascinating career.”

In addition to obtaining a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard Business School, Alsup also attended the National Defense University in Washington to get a master’s degree in National Resource Strategy. She recalled how since most of the people in the school were military, she found herself constantly defending the state department to them.

“They were always saying, ‘You’re asking us to do too much, you should be doing it,’” she recalled, “and I would remind them, ‘You have more people in military bands than we have Foreign Service officers!’”

Alsup has also done duty in central Africa, dealing with countries with their share of political problems, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Equatorial Guinea—” not exactly the garden spots in Africa,” she said, “but very interesting.”

Though not all African countries had the same political issues as in the West African country of Ghana, she was more concerned as a foreign officer about economic and commercial issues since that country’s government was largely supportive of the U.S. government’s positions.

“That’s basically what we do,” she explained. “We’re overseas, we promote U.S. policies, try to get the support of other countries for our policies in international organizations like the United Nations and so on.”

In her previous service in Gambia, Alsup was a deputy ambassador for two years, and noted that she loved the country and the people are wonderful, and is looking forward to going back there.

“It is quite an honor—I’m thrilled, I’m excited, I’m scared to death,” she said. “But I think it’s going to be a wonderful experience!”

To reach Frank Drouzas, email fdrouzas@theweeklychallenger.com

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