HFA Alumni Profile: Thomas Krajeski
Thomas Krajeski ’75, Russian language and literature alum and the new Ambassador of Bahrain, describes a typical day in the life of an Ambassador as well as what it was like to set up “Free University City” at UMass back in 1968.
Had you ever traveled to Bahrain before this post – and if so, would you tell us a little about it?
I had visited Bahrain briefly for a conference in 2006, and have served in Dubai as consul general in 1997-2001, so this is not unfamiliar turf. I’ve also worked in Yemen, Iraq, Egypt, and Tunisia. I’m an “NEA (Near Eastern Affairs) hand” in the State Department.
Bahrain is a very small island with a population of slightly more than one million, half of whom are Bahraini citizens and half of whom are expatriate workers and business people. The US-Bahrain relationship goes back more than a hundred years when American missionaries founded the American Mission Hospital here. Despite its small size, Bahrain is very important to the US bilaterally and as a key partner in the region, especially regarding security issues. The largest US Navy presence in the Middle East, the Fifth Fleet, is headquartered here. As we say, Bahrain truly “swings above its weight” in the security field, working closely with us in counter-terrorism, anti-smuggling and money-laundering, and anti-piracy. Bahrain is designated as a major non-NATO US ally; we have a free trade agreement; and they are a member of ISAF in Afghanistan. The past twelve months have been difficult for Bahrain as many Bahrainis, encouraged by events elsewhere in the Arab world, demonstrated for greater political and civil freedoms last spring. Government security forces clashed with demonstrators leading to a series of documented abuses, including the use of torture in detention. The situation is calmer now, and the government has pledged to reform its security forces and develop a more inclusive political structure, but much remains to be done. We’re trying to help with reconciliation and reform which we consider critically important to the future stability and prosperity of this island nation.
What does a typical day look like for an Ambassador?
My day is packed with meetings, events, briefings, visits, lunches, receptions, and dinners. I’m literally on the move from 07:30 am to 10 or 11 at night. Today (Sunday, December 11, 2011) is fairly typical. I arrived in the office at 8 am, read my briefings and e-mails; 08:30 met with my secretary to look over the day’s events and plan the week ahead; 09:00 met with my media and political team for a press summary; 09:30 met with Embassy senior staff, including the military, CIA, security, consular, management, and the deputy chief of mission; 10:00 classified briefing; 10:30 answer mail and respond to invitation requests with my secretary; 11:30 attend opening of new shipyard at invitation of the King; 14:00 Open a new American Center at the University; 15:00 draft welcome note to senior USG official who arrives tomorrow; 15:30 Arabic language lesson;16:30 weekly meeting with US Navy Vice Admiral who commands the Fifth Fleet; 17:30 head home to see my wife and take a nap; 19:00 attend United Arab Emirates National Day celebration at local hotel; 21:00 home to bed (no dinner following the reception, thank God). I try to get a good work-out scheduled for at least an hour, usually at 06:00 or at noon. Today will be tough but without exercise I cannot survive.
(Pictured above: Ambassador Krajeski with Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and his wife, Bonnie Krajeski)
As someone who has worked and traveled extensively in other countries (Nepal, India, Egypt, Poland, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain), is there anywhere you would like to go to or return to in particular?
My “bucket list” seems to get longer every year. My wife and I laugh that we are “professional tourists” who just stay too long in a place before exploring a new one. Of the places we’ve lived and worked, I would love to re-visit Poland. We were there during the end of martial law and communist rule in 1985-88. I know that the country has changed dramatically and I’d like to see it. Same goes for Berlin. We’re planning a trip to India next year. We lived in south India (Chennai) in 1982-84 and want to return to explore the north. It’s an incredible country, endlessly fascinating. Otherwise, our list includes mostly new places like South America, Australia, Japan, Mexico, and Africa (we’ve had to cancel two attempts to go on safari in Kenya and Tanzania, but we’re determined to make it next time).
Could you tell us how you came to work in the Foreign Service?
Believe it or not, I’d wanted to be a Foreign Service Officer since high school (Pentucket Regional High in West Newbury) when my Russian and German teacher suggested it because of my facility with foreign languages. I continued my study of Russian and German at UMass but got sidetracked by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (thanks to Professor Laslo Tikos and his amazing colleagues in Herter Hall). I spent a couple of years in graduate school at the University of North Carolina working on an MA in Russian Literature before I decided to leave academia and return to the “real world”. In December of 1977, I took the written exam for the Foreign Service and passed, and before I knew it, I was trekking in the mountains of Nepal as a consular officer on my first tour.
(Pictured above: Ambassador Krajeski in Iraq, 2008-2009)
How has your education at UMass and your study of the Russian language served you in your career?
Languages are an integral part of diplomacy and work in the Foreign Service. While much of the world conducts its business in English, the impact of learning and using a foreign language is huge. A language is the best window into a foreign culture, and the more you understand a person’s culture and history, the better diplomat you are. I came into the Service with good Russian and a deep understanding of Russian history, literature and politics, thanks to the Russian and History Departments at UMass and graduate study at UNC. While I have never served in the Soviet Union and Russia, I have had dozens of close encounters with Russian diplomats and businessmen. The State Department identified me as an experienced and adept language learner, and since 1979, I have learned Nepalese, Polish, Arabic and Farsi.
What is your fondest or funniest memory of UMass?
I should be careful here. I was a freshman in 1968, a tumultuous year in American history. I was part of “Project 10” situated in the brand-new Moore and Pierpont dorms in Southwest. It was a wild time. We set up “Free University City” in the fields nearby the football stadium, built geodesic domes out of plastic sheeting, and demanded that our professors and instructors conduct their classes there, allowing everyone –students and non-students—to attend. It survived for about a week, I think. I left UMass in January 1970 determined to give up my student deferment to the draft as a symbol of my opposition to the Vietnam War. I returned to the University in 1972 after serving two years as a conscientious objector. My wife and I lived in North Hadley in a big yellow house called “The Beehive” just on the other side of Mt. Warner. My fondest memories are of biking back and forth to the campus, buying fresh asparagus at the farm-stands, and memorizing Russian poetry while driving a campus bus.
What changes have you seen at UMass since you attended?
It still strikes me as a huge, amazingly vibrant and wonderful place. When I visited the campus last March, the biggest difference I noticed was the development of the surrounding area, especially the Route 9 corridor. And the traffic was insane. But there was still a sense that a student could burrow in and explore, seek out the great professors, the interesting courses, and indulge in the rich cultural and social life of a great university.
What advice would you give to UMass students? How about students who are interested in working with the Foreign Service?
The Foreign Service remains very much a “generalist’s” career and the varied backgrounds of my colleagues reflects this. The average age of entry is around 29 years old. Experience in international affairs, law, education, or business is common, but there are no set requirements for education or experience. A facility for hard languages is a plus, and every FSO is required to achieve fluency in a second language before we are tenured. Check out www.state.gov . Click on “Careers”. There’s lots of great info and advice on a career in the State Department and the Foreign Service.
(Pictured above: Ambassador Krajeski and his wife in Bahrain)