By Ed Fanselow, Beacon News Staff Writer
[Reprinted with permission of the Beacon News, Aurora, Illinois]
AURORA--While his career has brought him from Korea to Croatia to Mozambique--with several stops in between--North Aurora native and U.S. foreign diplomat Eric Whitaker can easily trace its origins back to the American Heartland.
"We Midwesterners have a sort of wholesome curiosity about foreign cultures because we live here in the interior of our continent," he said. "I think that's why we're so disproportionately represented in the foreign service. We're a unique group of people."
Whitaker was back in the Midwest last week by way of the State Department's Hometown Diplomats program, started last year by Secretary of State Colin Powell. The program encourages foreign diplomats to travel back to their hometowns to talk about the importance of foreign policy, which, Whitaker said, profoundly affects American lives every day.
"For one, we're working so that other countries are more stable and less susceptible to terrorist elements," he said. "And, since 9/11, that's especially important to our interests here at home."
He said that fighting the HIV-AIDS epidemic, building military alliances, developing trade agreements and strengthening democratic governments are other essential jobs for which diplomats are responsible.
"Of course, there's also that concern about getting visas," he said, smiling, "but, first and foremost, we're there to help people and to represent our country abroad."
Whitaker, 45, most recently served as director of the economic section of the U.S. Embassy in Maputo, Mozambique. A graduate of West Aurora High School and the University of Illinois, he said he was first inspired to become a diplomat while serving in the Peace Corps after graduating from college in 1980.
"I came back a very changed person," he said of returning to the States after a two-year stay in the Philippines. "That's when I thought for the first time that this might be something I'd like to do."
Nine years later, after earning a master's degree in public administration and serving for six years as assistant to the city manager in Lodi, Calif., Whitaker took his first job as a vice consul in Seoul, South Korea. He has been stationed, too, in Mali, Uganda, Ethiopia and the Sudan.
He speaks fluent Portuguese, French, Spanish and Korean and is conversational in Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia, and Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines.
This summer, he will begin a one-year fellowship at Princeton University, where he will work toward his third master's degree - this time in public policy - while recruiting students interested in foreign service.
"Its a fascinating career that's unlike any other," he said. "I find it a tremendous calling."