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From UC Law to the State Department...Meet Kate Pongonis '97

Kate PongonisIt was certainly a lucky coincidence that Kate Pongonis, a graduate of UC Law’s class of 1997 pictured with two Colombians displaced by flooding, was chosen to be featured in this issue of Updates@UC Law; contacting her would soon have been a bit more challenging, seeing as she’s off to Ethiopia for the next two years. Pongonis is a Foreign Service Officer with the United States Department of State. Her role in Ethiopia as Deputy Political Counselor of the U.S. Embassy will be to help monitor the political climate surrounding the upcoming 2010 national elections, as well as reporting on issues ranging from the Ethiopian government’s treatment of its opposition to U.S. multilateral counterterrorism efforts to Ethiopia’s relations with Somalia, Sudan, and Eritrea. But how did Pongonis go from UC Law to the Department of State?

During college, she was highly interested in language and international studies. She was a Spanish major who chose to study abroad in China, and she had a minor in economics. Upon graduating, however, she was unsure of what she wanted to do next. She toyed with the idea of going to law school, or possibly doing a fellowship of some kind, and she also applied to the Peace Corps. Upon deciding the Peace Corps was her next step, Pongonis made contact with Professor Bert Lockwood, Director of UC’s Urban Morgan Institute for Human Rights, who assured her that UC would hold her place for three years. UC was the only law school that would offer her a deferral so that she could take advantage of the significant opportunity to serve in the Peace Corps.

A Lifetime of Service Abroad

Pongonis was stationed in the highlands of Ecuador as an agricultural extension volunteer during her two-year service in the Peace Corps. “I really enjoyed working at the grass-roots level,” she said, “it really cemented my desire to live and work abroad.” Bearing that desire in mind, she returned to the States to attend UC Law as an Urban Morgan Fellow. She chose UC, she said, because she “wanted to focus on the social aspects of the law.”Upon coming back to the states after having lived in rural Ecuador for so long, Pongonis experienced a kind of reverse culture shock. She had been among those who had almost nothing, and when she returned to the US she discovered few could actually understand that part of her experience. She found refuge in the Institute, however, where she was able to find “people who shared similar social values, especially with respect to social justice and human rights.” Professor Lockwood was an especially important part of this; he became her mentor, and she really enjoyed his human rights-related classes.

Pongonis took full advantage of the opportunities presented to her by working with the Urban Morgan Institute. During her first summer in law school, she worked in Geneva with the United Nations Center for Human Rights. The following summer, she went to Taiwan, where she was able to utilize her language skills while working for the Taiwan Association for Human Rights in Taipei. While working with that non-governmental organization, she had the chance to be involved in death penalty appeals and advocacy against policy abuses and extrajudicial killings.

When she graduated from law school, Pongonis surveyed her options. She didn’t want to go into a law firm practice, but instead wanted to find a job where she could continue working at a grass roots level, since she had really cherished that experience in the Peace Corps. As a result, she wound up with the Atlanta Legal Aid Society working with indigent Hispanic immigrants from 1997 to 1999. In her capacity as a Hispanic outreach attorney, she focused on civil advocacy, confronting issues of domestic violence, labor, public benefits, family, and education law. She also did a lot of public outreach, giving “Know Your Rights” presentations and working in schools and with church-sponsored groups.

In 1999, Pongonis began her service with the Department of State. In her role as a a US diplomat, and she can be involved in anything from a country’s internal political situation, to its external relationships with neighboring countries, to human rights and democracy. Her first tour as a political officer was to the Dominican Republic, where she was stationed in Santo Domingo for two years. There, she was a consular officer for one year and the Human Rights Officer during the second year of her tour. She then did two tours in China: first in Beijing for four years, where she focused on air pollution, energy and climate change in the Environment, Science, Technology, and Health Section of the Embassy; then at the US Consulate in Chengdu, she was the Political officer responsible for human rights and international religious freedom primarily focused on Tibet.

She is currently back in the States, serving her first domestic tour in Washington. “Foreign Service Officers spend about three-quarters of their time abroad,” she explained, “and one-quarter working domestically.” She is currently working in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, where she serves as the Program Officer for Colombia and the Western Hemisphere Region. “It’s my job to provide policy justifications for providing emergency humanitarian assistance funding for the Colombia situation. In 2008, my office obligated approximately $23 million for Colombian refugees and displaced persons in the hemisphere, which is much less than some other crises that grab bigger headlines.” That money was used to help provide food, shelter, medical assistance, and other necessities to the over new 350,000 Colombian internally displaced persons and refugees, most of whom are in Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Venezuela. Pongonis works closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and other international non-governmental organizations to provide direct humanitarian assistance to the region.

An International Family

Within a matter of weeks, Pongonis is headed to Africa to serve her next tour in Ethiopia. She will be accompanied by her husband, David Foster, who is also a Foreign Service Officer. The two are a tandem couple, meaning they seek assignments in the same place. “There are couples in the Service who do not seek tandem assignments, but that’s not for us,” she says. Foster graduated UC a degree in geography in 1997, the same year Pongonis finished at UC Law. Foster’s role as a Foreign Service Officer? “He’s an Information Management Officer,” says Pongonis, “so he deals with technology; everything from fixing computer glitches, to satellites, radios and telephones, to dealing with the delivery of sensitive, highly classified information. Basically,” she says with a laugh, “he’s a computer geek.”

The couple have two children, Luke, 7, who is going into second grade, and Grace, 5, who will be starting kindergarten. The two will attend the Ethiopia International Community School, and are already multi-lingual. Luke is currently in a bi-lingual Spanish immersion program and has grown up speaking Mandarin; and Grace, who was adopted, speaks English and Mandarin. In fact, the whole family speaks Chinese—and English in the home. When they get to Ethiopia, the children will also be studying French.

Understandably, the family loves to travel. They especially love anything involving the outdoors, particularly camping, hiking, and any and all kinds of water sports. Additionally, Pongonis emphasizes that “music is very important in our family. Not just going to concerts and symphonies, which we frequently do, but it is also important for our children. Luke plays the violin, and Grace hopes to begin studying the piano.”

A Message to Future Lawyers: You Can Do This, Too!

pongonis quotePongonis loves her job. Just listening to her talk about what she does, you can hear the excitement in her voice and sense the passion with which she approaches her role. She doesn’t deny that hers is a challenging position, but she says she has learned a lot. “You learn about carrots and sticks,” she says, “about ways to get countries to do better.” She has also experienced challenges relating to changes in administrations—she began during the Clinton administration—and administration policies. “You have to remember your job is carrying out the policies of the president. You serve at the pleasure of the president.”
As she senses the interview is coming to an end, Pongonis asks me to be sure to include a call to service. “I want to encourage any new lawyers to consider this fascinating career option,” she says. “There are a lot of lawyers here, and we’re all using our skills and training. Plus, the job is lots of fun, especially getting to travel.” She concludes the interview by emphasizing her openness to talk to anyone wanting to know more.

To learn more about the U.S. Foreign Service, contact Kate Pongonis at pongonisk@state.gov.

Author: Lindsay Mather, '11