Develop Your Own Odyssey

An Open Letter to 17-22 Year Olds 

Arthur L. Fern

© Copyright 2003 by Arthur L. Fern


First, I'll tell you I'm not a career counselor. They'll measure your abilities, motivations, and advise on resumes and interviews. I'm the devil's advocate, enticing you, trying to enthuse you to check out 'public service - international'. By that I mean US Government activities abroad, multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the private non-profits operating overseas (earthquake rescue, famine relief, democratic institution building and the like).

. Don't always take the easiest, most convenient path. The military draft was in effect when I graduated from college. Instead of spending two years as a clerk typist, I enlisted for three in the US Army's Counterintelligence Corps. After agent training and German language school, I volunteered for Berlin duty. Others sought Frankfurt or Munich so they could tour Europe. But wasn't Berlin on the frontline in the Cold War?

We lost an important intelligence source in East Berlin. President Eisenhower had issued him a letter of commendation for his work, particularly on Khrushchev's secret XX Party Congress speech denouncing Stalin. 'Peter' was caught, convicted of espionage and executed by firing squad. Some 22 years later I learned by chance from his handler how he was compromised. Ever heard of Kim Philby? He was a British intelligence officer and one of the Soviet Union's most successful spies during the Cold War. He was on the Joint British-American Intelligence Board in Washington and on the American Desk in London, when the US Government shared Peter's sanitized reports with the Brits.

After graduate school, a tour in international finance at the US Treasury and as a Financial attaché at the US Embassy in Bonn, I 'had' to take the chance of 'going independent' and opened an office in downtown DC to work on World Bank projects.

We did competitive intelligence after World Bank project invitations. An official said that after great preparation the farmers didn't show up for a rice project in Malaysia. They supported their families well with five months' work per year and seven of vacation. Through religion (the Sultan) and sex (their wives) they got the farmers to work harder and longer. Guess we'd need to hire an anthropologist for this one. Or was it a modern, subtle 'heart of darkness' a la Joseph Conrad?

Keep your eyes and ears open when working abroad. On project trips, we'd visit 'rim' countries for new business. On one Middle East trip, I landed in Beirut in the midst of civil war (I was told it was 'a civil disturbance'). After visiting ministries and realizing projects would not materialize, I returned to the hotel to reschedule my flight home. While on the telephone, I could see rockets from Muslim West Beirut crumbling the hi-rises in Christian East Beirut. My eyes were in one world, my ears in another. Later looking for gifts for my children, strangers invited me for a drink in West Beirut but I declined. Months later several professors from the American University were abducted. Later, Terry Anderson, an AP correspondent, was taken hostage. Some did not return.

The exotic jungle in Senegal. Nine foot termite hills; a farmer not knowing seeds needed dirt to germinate, wound up having mushroom omelets with champagne (Veuve Clicquot) after midnight in a French colonial mansion and classical music (Rimsky-Korsakov) as background. Fascinating conversation. I, as the only American in the province and from Washington, was bombarded with questions about Vietnam and I, in turn, was trying to understand the traditional, conservative, Muslim Senegalese farmer. A young technician, whose uncle was at Dienbienphu in 1953 when the Vietminh defeated the French, said America would lose in Vietnam.

Belize. I met a resident American businessman, 'Turpentine Man'. Because it was his 'territory', he said he would pay for drinks at a club, 'The Big C'. Chinese firecrackers were popping off on the dance floor! A scuffle broke out with British soldiers and the bouncers threw them out. They were surprised we didn't know who our 'friend' was - Belize's President had awarded him a national medal. We had a 'quiet American hero' amongst us.

There are more stories, of course, but there might be one question you would ask. What would I do, if I were your age? For starters, try the Jobs Board of the Foreign Policy Association ( Here you'll see job descriptions and qualifications required of many nonprofit and non-governmental jobs - senior, intermediate, starting and internships (some you could take on summer vacations and built up your resume!). These internships just might be more fascinating and fun than a fast food job. Last year, an environmental group sought an intern for a 2-3 month period for work at Lake Baikal, the world's deepest (nearly a mile deep) and one of the world's largest lakes in south-central Russia.

Recently, I was dismayed to learn from a neighbor's son, a graduating medical student, that he had not heard of Doctors Without Borders, the Nobel Peace Prize Winner a few years back. He 'guaranteed' me three-quarters or more of his medical class had never heard of them. Or a fireman, who has not heard of American Rescue Team International. Good gracious!

You can't get there unless you know the opportunity exists. And that is only the tip of proverbial iceberg! Information is a funny thing. You may collect a lot of worthless garbage, but, unless you have it and can corroborate it, you'll never be able to determine whether it's garbage or gold or gold leaf in-between.

Guys, 'You're born, you die, do something with the interval' and 'Do what you love and love what you do'. International work is fascinating and fun! And you might just make a little difference.

Discover your own odyssey! -- good luck, guys.

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