Alumni Spotlight: Rebecca Otis (’96)
Rebecca Otis (’96) is in many ways the quintessential Governor’s School for Government and International Studies grad. She is Foreign Service Officer (a.k.a.“diplomat”) currently serving at the US Embassy in Cairo, Egypt. Rebecca joined the State Department in 2014 after a career in NGOs and higher education. “Embassies are like large ships,” she explains. “We all have a specific role to get the job done.” Her role is that of a Political Officer who meets with other diplomats to conduct business on behalf of the U.S. government. So how did she get there?
Rebecca was a member of Governor’s School’s second-ever graduating class. “John Wilkes’ global studies class was my foundation for understanding the world, and a launching pad for my career pursuits in adulthood,” she says. She also credits her AP English teacher, Patricia Green, as a significant influence on her intellectual development. “She was an amazing woman and truly someone who inspired me to really think for myself. She prepared me to write at the college level, and I carried her teaching style through to my years as a college professor. I wouldn’t let students leave my classroom without being better people and better thinkers.”
After graduating from GSGIS, Rebecca attended the University of Virginia, where she majored in foreign affairs with minors in Spanish and Italian. She then went to graduate school at the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, where she received a master’s degree in international studies with a focus in human rights. She stayed on at Korbel as a doctoral candidate, and conducted her dissertation research on Palestinian female political identity in Israel and the Palestinian Territories as a research fellow at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She also worked and volunteered for various NGOs while teaching in political science and women’s studies departments at the University of Denver, University of Colorado, and Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. In 2014, Rebecca made a career move after she successfully passed the U.S. Department of State Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) and additional exams to become a Foreign Service Officer.
Rebecca was one of three Arabic speakers in her training classes and, knowing there were three Arabic speaking posts open, she suspected early on that she would be posted in the Middle East. She and her family moved to Cairo in July of 2015 and have been in Egypt ever since. “Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, you don’t really think about permanently living overseas, but Governor’s School prepared me for the work that I do,” she says. “My high school education was a portal to the world.”
What’s the best part of this job? “The best part is being able to make tangible differences in people’s lives,” she says. “I have been able to work very closely with the Syrian and African refugee communities in Cairo, and I have had the opportunity to help support critical refugee and asylum cases to the USA.” Some of the most meaningful work she’s been a part of involved resettling members of the LGTBI community. “There has been the wonderful quality of building relationships and rapport as a representative of America and also as a human being,” she says. “You have an opportunity as a diplomat to help make the world better than you found it. The thing I am the most interested in is exploring the human part of diplomacy. I like having the chance to present the face of America as one that sincerely wants to know, help, and understand people.”
Another fulfilling part of the job has been watching her three children (ages 5, 2, and 3 months) enjoy their time abroad. “We like to think of the experience as ‘world-schooling,’” Rebecca explains. Her oldest daughter attends French immersion kindergarten in Cairo, and has asked to ride camels at the pyramids again for her birthday. Her two-year-old now incorporates Egyptian Arabic phrases into her conversations. “My kids think international travel and riding camels at the pyramids is completely normal,” Rebecca says, laughing. “Meanwhile, I didn’t get to travel abroad until I was 20 years old!”
What is the most difficult part of her job? “There’s a sense in which you’re always on,” she answers. “You’re never really off of work. You are also a representative of the United States, which is not always easy. Still, I see it as an honor to represent my country.”
Rebecca and her family are getting ready to come back to Washington, D.C. for a year of language training before they transition to another position abroad in the year ahead. As far as she’s come since her high school days, “I’m always going to be a Governor’s School nerd,” Rebecca says. We very much hope we will see her at MLWGS when she’s back in the US!