Former U.S. Ambassador and University alumna Linda Thomas-Greenfield visited the LSU French House Wednesday afternoon to detail her personal journey from Baker, Louisiana to the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of African Affairs.
Thomas-Greenfield served as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs from August 2013 to March 2017. She also served as Director General of the United States Foreign Service from April 2012 to August 2013 and as U.S. Ambassador to Liberia from August 2008 to February 2012.
The LSU Diversity Abroad Initiative event provided students the opportunity to interact and ask Thomas-Greenfield questions about a variety of topics from study abroad programs to present issues on the African continent.
Thomas-Greenfield attended Northwestern High School in Zachary. Born into a period of segregation, she was bussed to school in Zachary while passing two other high schools along the way. She was only permitted to attend Northwestern High School.
“We had substandard books, we had substandard facilities, but we had amazing teachers who were absolutely encouraging and supportive,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “I credit those teachers for contributing to my success today.”
Tremendous pressure placed on her and fellow African-American students marked Thomas-Greenfield’s difficult transition to LSU. Thomas-Greenfield and her roommate were the only African-Americans on her dormitory floor in Powell Hall. Thomas-Greenfield recalled her time at the University as “four years of torture,” vividly describing the difficulties of being an African-American student in the early '70s to students attending the event.
“None of us felt we had the right or even the privilege to fail,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “You couldn’t have a bad day. You had to prove your right to be here. You had to prove you were as good as any other student. In fact, you had to prove you were better to earn the right to stay at this state university.”
Thomas-Greenfield’s educational pursuit took her north to Madison, Wisconsin for a master’s degree with a plan to return to LSU for law school. While at the University of Wisconsin, Thomas-Greenfield rekindled her fascination and love for Africa that she once had as a middle school student in Zachary. She passed the Foreign Service Exam and dropped her dissertation at Wisconsin to join the foreign service. Thirty-five years of foreign service followed.
Former president George W. Bush nominated Thomas-Greenfield for the position of U.S. Ambassador to Liberia in 2008. As ambassador, she worked closely with Africa’s first elected female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Policies focused on providing opportunity and prosperity to the country. These ideas of opportunity and prosperity carried over to Thomas-Greenfield’s days as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, where she acted as former President Barack Obama and former Sec. of State John Kerry’s top diplomat in the region.
“Good leadership leads to good governance. Good governance leads to prosperity,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “Prosperity leads to countries that can take care of its people.”
After telling her personal story, Thomas-Greenfield encouraged University students to join the Peace Corps and dedicate two years of serving the greater good, using the experiences gained abroad to better their home country. She asked students to become leaders in the global community, describing her personal pillars of leadership: compassion, integrity, care, constant learning and humility.
Thomas-Greenfield’s departure from the State Department led her to the private sector. She currently serves as a senior counselor at the Albright Stonebridge Group in Washington, D.C. The firm, founded by former Sec. of State Madeline Albright, advises financial institutions, industry associates and non-profit organizations on international relations.
“It is so satisfying to be your country’s representative,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “You’re working for the public good. For me, having the American flag fly outside my window as Assistant Secretary was so meaningful because I knew I was there because of you. I was there because of taxpayers. I was there to serve the greater good.