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From UC Law to the State Department…Meet Kate Pongonis ’97

It was a lucky coincidence that Kate Pongonis ’97, pictured with two displaced Colombian flood refugees, 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.  As a United States Foreign Service Officer, Pongonis is a diplomat with the U.S. Department of State.  Her role in Ethiopia will be to help monitor the political climate surrounding the upcoming 2010 national elections, dealing with issues ranging from the current government’s treatment of its opposition to counterterrorism efforts.  But how did Pongonis get from UC Law to the U.S. Department of State?

During college, she was very interested in language and international studies.  She was a Spanish major who chose to study abroad in China. She also minored in economics.  Upon graduating, however, Pongonis 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; she also applied to the Peace Corps.  Upon deciding the Peace Corps was her next step, Pongonis contacted UC Law about deferring her admission. Once she learned that UC could honor her request, she knew this was the place for her.

Kate Pongonis ’97 A Lifetime of Service Abroad

Pongonis was stationed in the highlands of Ecuador as an agricultural extension volunteer during her 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.” She liked the Urban Morgan Institute and its programs, enjoying the camaraderie with “people who shared similar social values, especially with respect to social justice and human rights.” 

During her first summer in law school, she worked in Geneva with the United Nations High Commissioner 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 other important human rights issues. 

When she graduated from law school, Pongonis surveyed her options.  Not wanting to go into a “typical” practice, she looked for a job where she could work at a grass roots level, reminiscent to her Peace Corps experience. She landed at Georgia Legal Services in Atlanta, working with migrant farm workers. In her capacity as an outreach attorney for Hispanic population, she focused on civil advocacy, domestic violence, undocumented immigrants’ applications for citizenship, among many other issues.  She also did a lot of public outreach, giving “Know Your Rights” presentations and working in schools.

In 1999, Pongonis began her service with the Department of State.  In her role as a Foreign Service Officer, she is considered to be a U.S. diplomat and 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 focused on human rights issues; during her second year she was a Human Rights Officer.  Pongonis then did two tours in China: first in Beijing, where she focused on issues regarding the environment, science and technology, and health; then at the US Consulate in Cheng Du, where she dealt with human rights and international religious freedom issues.

Pongonis is currently back in the States, serving her first domestic tour in Washington.  “Foreign Services Officers spend about three-quarters of their time abroad,” she explained, “and one-quarter working domestically.”  She is currently working with the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, where she serves as the Program Officer for the Colombia/Andes Region.  “It’s my job to provide policy justifications to Congress for providing emergency assistance funding to Columbia.  In 2008 Colombia received about $23 million, which is much less than countries like Pakistan.”  That money was used to help provide food, shelter, medical assistance, and other necessities to the over 350,000 Colombian refugees—most of whom are in Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Venezuela—and internally displaced persons.  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 with a  Love of Travel

Within a matter of weeks, Pongonis and her family are headed to Africa to serve their next tour in Ethiopia.  Her husband David Foster, a ’97 UC graduate, is also a Foreign Service Officer, focusing on information management.  They are parents to Luke, 7, who is going into second grade, and Grace, 5, who will be starting kindergarten.  The two attend the international community school and are already multi-lingual, speaking four languages between them. They’ll learn a new one (French) in Africa.  

Understandably, the family loves to travel.  They also enjoy music and anything involving the outdoors, particularly camping, hiking, and any and all kinds of water sports.

A Career Option Worth Considering

Pongonis loves her job.  Listening to her talk about what she does, one 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 the interview closed, Pongonis provided a bit of advice to young attorneys. “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.” 

To learn more about the U.S. Foreign Service, contact Kate Pongonis