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Career Profile: Shannon E. Runyon, AB'87

Alumna leverages her travel experience in work with the US Department of State

Reno-native Shannon E. Runyon, AB’87, is a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State, currently on assignment as a Senior Advisor at the International Joint Commission (IJC).  Runyon describes the IJC as “the oldest institution that nobody’s ever heard of.”  The IJC is a binational organization established in 1909 between the United States and Canada under the Boundary Waters Treaty.  She explained that the IJC “keeps the U.S. and Canada from going to war over water use issues.”  With numerous bodies of water that create and transit the boundary between the U.S. and Canada, the use of these shared waters for agriculture, commerce, recreation and power generation is governed by the Boundary Waters Treaty so that both countries receive equitable benefit from these natural resources.  Entities wishing to make use of these waters which could impact the other side by, for example, building a dam, are generally referred by the U.S. and Canadian governments to the IJC for approval. The IJC approves and sets conditions for the operation of these projects in order to maximize binational relations.  As a Senior Advisor, Runyon liaises between the Boards of Control for her assigned regions (The Great Lakes including Lake Superior, the St. Lawrence River and Niagara, and the St. Croix River) and the politically appointed commissioners of the IJC.

Although she didn’t take courses specific to water or energy issues as a student in The College (in fact, she studied Behavioral Sciences, after briefly toying with the idea of a pre-Med or Econonics major), Runyon says that “one nice thing about being a State Department generalist is that you get to become an ‘instant expert’ on a variety of different topics.”  Her areas of responsibility with the State Department have run the gamut: public affairs in Turkmenistan; whaling, election monitoring, and human rights in Barbados (and the Eastern Caribbean); oil and gas in Azerbaijan; multinational economic cooperation in Australia and China; and now boundary water issues back in North America.  With positions across the globe and a commitment to current affairs in each location, Runyon feels the influence of her time at the University of Chicago in her daily work, specifically the University’s dedication to a love of learning, which is what she has made her career.  “I get to learn something new every day,… whether I want to or not,” Runyon said.

During her final year at the University of Chicago, Runyon took a Russian language course (because Russian Civilization was not offered that year) and was able to apply the skills she learned there in a very real way when she became a Russian-qualified Flight Attendant with Pan Am a year after graduation.  In her travels with Pan Am throughout Europe, the then-Soviet Union, Latin America, and Africa, Runyon gained greater insight into the nature of the cultures and countries she visited.  This experience stirred her global curiosity, helped her realize a love of travel and piqued her interest in the potential for business development in the former Soviet Union.  Following this short stint with Pan Am, Runyon went on to receive a Master of International Management (MIM) degree focused on Eastern European Business Development and Russian from the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona.  After graduation she became a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine, serving as a Business Development Advisor for a local NGO which advised recently privatized companies on how to operate in a capitalist market.  This position exposed Runyon to opportunities within the State Department through her interaction with employees of the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, and she eventually took and passed the Department’s Foreign Service Exam upon her return to Washington in 2000.

Runyon said that her biggest professional challenges have come while serving in countries whose governments do not fully agree with or which actively oppose the goals of the U.S. government, places where she has had to employ creative ways to execute her mission.  During her first tour in the Foreign Service as the Public Affairs Officer in Turkmenistan, Runyon and her fellow officers often had to contend with the eccentric whims of Turkmenbashi, the country’s leader at the time, whom western media described as “one of the world’s most totalitarian and repressive dictators” and his cabinet which was driven by fear.  “It was very hard to get things done,” Runyon said.  One of the initiatives that Runyon helped manage was the Future Leaders Exchange program (FLEX), a scholarship program for high school students wishing to complete their junior or senior year in the U.S. before returning to Turkmenistan. Because of the Turkmen government’s own agenda, Runyon explained, local leadership wanted to control who received these scholarships.  The U.S.-sponsored program is merit-based, and only students with adequate capability in English who pass a written test and suitability assessment are eligible.  A board in the U.S. then reviews the pool of eligible students and grants scholarships based on academic merit and demonstrated ability to adapt and thrive in a new environment.  Contrary to this procedure, Turkmen leaders wanted to use these scholarships as loyalty rewards for families of Turkmen boys who may or may not have been eligible, each year providing the Embassy with a short list of only boys with “good” Turkmen last names, despite the program being open to all students regardless of gender or family background.  Fortunately, during Runyon’s tenure, she and her team were able to award scholarships to all 50 of the genuine winners, but Runyon noted that the same scholarship program had been cancelled in previous years due to Turkmen government interference, such as withholding exit visas for students they did not wish to participate in the program.

In contrast to these challenging experiences with Turkmen leadership, Runyon highlights one of her biggest accomplishments with the State Department as securing an interview for 60 Minutes with Turkmenbashi, which in itself was a challenge.  This required more extensive negotiations with the leader and his inner circle than other initiatives and on a much shorter timeline.  Runyon and her Ambassador were eventually able to convince Turkmenbashi to do the interview after explaining that it would ultimately be better for him and his global image for the journalists to hear his story from him directly. They made him understand that while the coverage might not be completely flattering, as the state-run media always was, to deny the interview would give the journalists no option but to provide a very one-sided view of the country and his leadership.  The segment successfully highlighted both the beauty and history of the country, showed some of the effects of Turkmenbashi’s “cult of personality,” and provided western media access to one of the most reclusive leaders of the day.

Of her career in the Foreign Service, Runyon said, “It’s been fun.  It’s not perfect--no job ever is.  There are always challenges having to do with the day-to-day, especially picking up and moving.  One of the hardest things is that you go and make friends and build relationships in these places, and then you have to leave them.”  For example, Runyon describes her colleagues in Turkmenistan as “some of the most wonderful, dedicated people working in a very difficult environment, and it was really hard to leave them knowing that they would still have to keep doing that hard work and carrying those torches.”  Runyon said that the American community within the Foreign Service is reasonably easy to reconnect with, noting they sometimes run into each other in unexpected places while on assignment; however, the likelihood of her working with her local colleagues and friends again is often very slim.  Making it even more difficult for Runyon to leave some of her local colleagues behind is the knowledge that their countries may not be in the best economic or civil situation, with host governments that are difficult enough to work with as a U.S. officer, let alone live a lifetime under those regimes.

In each of the countries she has worked, Runyon said that while there may be disagreements between the U.S. and local governments where Foreign Service Officers are stationed, it is important to understand that most governments have their own logical reasons for objecting to various policy initiatives, even if they don’t seem reasonable to people who have grown up with the relative freedoms of peace and democracy we have in the U.S.  It is then up to Runyon and others in her position to “dig a little bit deeper to find out what some of those underlying objectives are and navigate the waters to [come to an agreement]. That’s sort of what diplomacy is all about.”

For current students or recent graduates looking to make a career in the Foreign Service, Runyon emphasized taking the test online and researching internship opportunities with the State Department. Internships provide individuals a chance to see if they work well in the environment of the Department, Runyon said. She also said that the key to her success in life, as well as in the Foreign Service has been a willingness to try new things and follow what interests her, as in the case of her transition from flight attendance to Foreign Service Officer, and she advises others with an interest in the Foreign Service to do the same.

Runyon’s Volunteer Activity
Runyon also serves as the Metro Chair of Washington DC for the University of Chicago’s Chicago Women’s Alliance (CWA).  She was motivated to get involved by a sense of growing more established in her career and a feeling that she had something to offer through volunteering.  She had also seen interesting programs that the CWA was holding in Chicago and hopes to replicate some of that activity in the DC area.  In addition to volunteering with the CWA, Runyon serves as a Mentor with the Department of State-USAID Civil Service Mentoring Program.