'So you want to be a diplomat"

On the occasion of the French House Centennial, Susan returned to UW-Madison and the French House to relive fond memories and connect with other alumni and current students. On Friday afternoon, October 19th, Susan (front row, center right) met with undergraduates to speak about what it means to work in diplomacy. Approaching the topic from many angles — as a French major, as a UW graduate, as a woman, and as a U.S. citizen clinging to the ideals of democracy and integrity — Susan described the ins and outs of working in Washington D.C., traveling overseas, wearing protective armour in Irak, and carving out her space in the ever-evolving world of international diplomacy.

Susan Notar received her BA in French in 1987. She became a French House Resident in the fall of 1984, thanks in part to the recommendation of her older sister, also a French House Alum. After her junior year in Aix-en-Provence, Susan returned to the French House and graduated the following spring, 1987. Susan is currently a Senior Advisor with the US Department of State, working in the Office of Global Criminal Justice with the Middle East Team.

April 1985, students protest CIA recruitment on campus. (photo UW Archives and Records)

Madison has changed quite a lot since you were on campus in the ‘80s. What would today’s students be surprised to know about campus back then?

Susan: The time I spent growing up in Madison and going to the University of Wisconsin-Madison were very intellectually and culturally rich.  There was also definitely a hippie meets punk rock vibe I liked a lot that sometimes manifested itself in independent stores, food coops, and thrift store chic.  When I return, I’ll be curious to see whether it still exists.

As an undergraduate, you majored in French and lived at the French House, which, as you know, is celebrating 100 years. What’s your fondest memory of your time as a French House resident?

Susan: I loved the camaraderie of the residents and how much fun we had together.  Ok, I also really liked the food a lot and the great dance parties we had with members of faculty at the winter and spring semesters and Bastille Day!

Susan (left) at a picnic in the Tuiliries Gardens with classmates heading to Aix-en-Provence, fall 1995. (photo Susan Notar)

How do you think your experience learning – and living! – French may have influenced your career in government and diplomacy?

Susan: Learning a foreign language expands your mind about the way in which other cultures operate and see the world.  I have found it easier after learning French to learn other ‘languages’ whether they be Italian, law, or diplomacy.  I have also used my French in my work.  Last year for example, I was in northern Iraq in a remote part of the Ninewa Plains as part of an official delegation.  We met with an Archbishop whose theology studies in Mosul when he was a young man were entirely in French.  It was a little surreal actually, because he and I spent the rest of the meeting speaking only in French, in a very far-flung part of the Middle East!

You’re the current Senior Criminal Justice Sector Advisor for Iraq, and previously served as its Senior Human Rights Officer. Can you tell us a bit about those positions?

Susan: When I first joined the State Department in 2008, I worked in the Political-Military Affairs section of the Iraq desk.  At the time, I was the only woman in the section so I definitely wanted to prove myself.  In addition to learning all of the State Department terminology and practices, I had to learn some from the Defense Department as well.  When I travelled to Iraq, it was a dangerous time and the Embassy was being shelled often.  I had to wear body armor and a helmet and I travelled around quite a bit in helicopters.  My son was young at the time and I remember hearing him brag to his friends about the different helicopters in which his mom rode, though I know he was still afraid when I went.  I was often the only woman in meetings with U.S. diplomats and very senior Iraq officials.  I remember thinking I never could have imagined how my life would take the twists and turns it did from my college days in Madison to working on the Middle East.

In my work on human rights in Iraq, I have been quite proud of the work we have done on behalf of the Yezidi people and other minority groups, and Yezidi women who the terrorist group ISIS targeted in 2014 to help them and provide them with assistance they needed to help rebuild their lives.  I worked with a team here at the State Department to establish the factual and legal basis Secretary Kerry and Secretary Tillerson relied upon to determine ISIS committed genocide against Yezidis and Christians, and crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing against them and other minority groups.  Currently, I work as a Senior Advisor in the Office of Global Criminal Justice.  We are a small team comprised mainly of international lawyers who work to hold perpetrators of atrocities accountable around the world.  As a member of the Middle East team, I have been working to help support the efforts of a United Nations investigative body created to help collect, store, and preserve evidence of ISIS atrocities for eventual prosecution.  It is good, meaningful work.

To learn more about the Yazidis women, start with this article by the Guardian, Slaves of Isis: the long walk of the Yazidi women, from July 2017. (photo theguardian.com)

In addition to your UW degree, you also completed a law degree at American University in Washington, DC. How do you think your law degree has supported your work as a diplomat?

Susan: I actually have two law degrees, my J.D. from American University, Washington College of Law, and my LL.M. (an advanced law degree) in Public International Law from George Washington University Law School.   Legal training is helpful in that it forces you to digest huge reams of data and be able to understand it and apply it to real life situations—much as we do every day at work.  It also teaches you, if it works well, to write well and analytically and speak comfortably in front of others.  Both skills are necessary, but not the only ones needed to be a successful diplomat. Being able to work well with others is an invaluable ability for any diplomat that isn’t emphasized enough.

“Being able to work well with others is an invaluable ability for any diplomat that isn’t emphasized enough.”

You’ve been at the US State Department for over 10 years now, and we know it’s undergone a lot of change during the past couple of years. How have things changed in the time that you’ve been there?

Susan: The State Department is a wonderful place to work for those of us who are curious about the world, committed to public service, prepared to test yourself intellectually and many other ways, and work very hard.  Since the time I first joined it, I’ve been glad to see an increased attention to promoting diversity at all ranks including at the senior most echelons.

Susan Notar and Christine Craven

Susan Notar with fellow alum Christine Craven at the French House Centennial, UW Memorial Union Great Hall. (photo Kyle Wege, Crimson Sun Studios)

Any advice for current Badgers interested in a career in diplomacy?

Susan: I would urge them to dream big and not think there is one simple path to becoming a successful diplomat.  There are people from many diverse professions and educational backgrounds who eventually join the Department, not only say an international relations or political science degree.  It would be helpful for them to speak with people such as myself who currently work at the State Department, spend time overseas, for example in the Peace Corps or an international humanitarian organization, study foreign languages, and demonstrate a real interest in foreign policy.  They might also consider interning at the Department either here in Washington or in one of our Embassies overseas.  They should really also work on their “soft skills”, their speaking ability, and their ability to “play nicely” with others.

Lastly, you’ll be attending the French House Centennial Gala on October 19 at the Memorial Union Great Hall. What about this opportunity to reconnect are you most looking forward to?

Susan: It is a way for me to honor the French House and French and Italian Department that helped to set me on the path to the place I am now.  I love the French House and French and Italian Department and have such fond memories of the time I spent at UW-Madison.  It is a truly a unique place!

Merci Susan!  Nous sommes entièrement d’accord !