FEATURE PAGE
July 15, 2021


Her career with the State Department
led her all over the diplomatic World

Story & photos by Susan Lassiter


When asked if she would agree to an interview, Monique Austin asked, "Why would anyone be interested in me? I don’t want to sound uppity." Then she began reflecting on her distinguished career and travels to over 30 countries for the U.S. Department of State. She recently retired and moved to Smithfield.

 

Monique was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pa. but both of her parents, Velma Dublin Austin and Leonard Earl Austin, were from Smithfield. Her mother’s sisters, Clara Avery and Rogerlyn Smith, also lived in Smithfield and taught in Johnston County schools.

 

Monique and her brothers, Kenneth and Sheldon, visited relatives here while they were growing up. Both brothers now live in Smithfield. Monique thought about retiring in Washington, D.C. but family roots brought her here instead.

 

Her parents left Smithfield for Philadelphia after Velma Austin graduated from nursing school in Charlotte and Earl returned from the Korean War. Her mother was a pediatric nurse with the Philadelphia Public School System and her father worked in the urban planning office for Marion Township, Pa. The parents planned to return to Smithfield to retire but Mr. Austin died in 1985. Mrs. Austin came in 1987 and worked part-time at the Mental Health Center.

 

Monique graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in psychology and received a scholarship to attend Temple University in Philadelphia to earn a master's degree in social work with a minor in social justice. A frustrating internship with the Superior Court for the District of Columbia swayed her career path and she didn’t finish the master's program.

 

It was a court case that changed her direction as a social worker when a young abused child was returned to his parent rather than Monique’s recommendation of placing him in a safe environment. "I knew I couldn’t take that very long," she admitted.

 

Next, she received an internship to work at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. --- in the women’s program of NASA’s Equal Employment Office, training women to strive for upward mobility. When that internship ended, Monique worked as a researcher on Capitol Hill for the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress. (Her brother, Sheldon, also worked for the Library of Congress.) In 1989, she moved to Boston to attend Simmons University, a well-known school for social work and business administration. She earned an MBA degree in 1991.

 

In Boston and later in Washington, Monique worked in the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in the areas of public health and environmental issues. The GAO provides auditing and investigative services to Congress. It was in 1999 that the pieces of her education and career experiences jelled. She was recruited to join the Inspector General’s Office at the State Department. And that was just prior to the big "Y2K" controversy.

 

Y2K --- also known as the “millennium bug,” according to National Geographic --- was a computer flaw that could have caused problems when dealing with dates beyond December 31, 1999. It was feared by computer programmers and users all over the world that it would happen on January 1, 2000. "When complicated computer programs were being written during the 1960s through the 1980s, computer engineers used a two-digit code for the year. The 19 was left out to shorten the date because data storage in computers took up a lot of space,” explained National Geographic. In other words, New Year's Day 2000 could have been interpreted as January 1, 1900 and that would have caused havoc for banks, power plants, and transportation that depend on correct time and date.

Because of the threat, Monique’s State Department assignment was to determine if embassies were prepared for Y2K. Asia was her first portfolio. That included China, Vietnam, Japan, Malaysia, and Jakarta. When serving in China and because of her tall stature and dark complexion, "I stood out in a crowd and probably had more photos taken of me than Chairman Mao," she laughed.


The State Department's Foreign Service carries out the international policies of our government and aides U.S. citizens abroad. It’s the primary personnel system used by the diplomatic service of the Federal Government, with more than 270 U.S. embassies and consulates around the world. Foreign Service staffing is also provided to headquarters at the Department of State, Harry S. Truman Building, Department of Agriculture, and Department of Commerce.

 

Members of the Foreign Service must pass vigorous oral and written exams. Required clearances include medical, suitability, and "Top Secret" security. Members must be "worldwide available and deployed anywhere based on the needs of embassies and consulates." There’s always potential for violence, civil unrest, or warfare.
 

Over various assignments, Monique served as a General Services Officer as well as a Management Officer. She dealt with banking officials, vendors, and service providers. That could include security, utilities, equipment and supplies, housing, and transportation.


During her tenure, she served in three-dozen countries including Brazil, Equador, the United Kingdom, Egypt, Austria, and Italy. One of her favorite assignments was to Nigeria where she spent three years living in the capital, Abuja. She had to learn about the country’s Muslim culture as over half the population was Muslim.


She told about a lesson she learned the hard way. She managed the largest local staff and decided to honor them with a luncheon. However, this festivity was given during Ramadan. Many graciously attended but couldn’t partake due to their daytime fasting rules.


Another memorable occasion was a wedding Monique attended where the bridal party entered dancing, all attired in the same fabric.

 

Another treasured assignment was to Haiti for two years following the terrible earthquake there in 2010. Monique was the Deputy Director of Management for the embassy. She was assigned to find housing for Americans. It was in Haiti when she met President Jimmy Carter, who came as a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, and also President and Mrs. Bill Clinton when Hillary was Secretary of State.

 

For three years during the Obama Administration, Monique held a temporary assignment at the United Nations coordinating UN General Assembly meetings on behalf of the Office of International Conferences, which accredited speakers. Monique and her staff worked with event planning and logistics for hotels, transportation, and conference rooms. It was here that she met President Barack Obama at a reception for the UN staff.

When her assignment at the UN ended, the Department of State presented her a Meritorious Honor Award that read: "In recognition of sustained exceptional performance as the (acting) Deputy Director of the International Conferences Offices and as Chief of the Administrative Support Unit 2016-2018 and with deep appreciation of your service from colleagues, peers, and our inter-agency clients."

Her final assignment was in Washington, where she sometimes attended ceremonies in the White House Rose Garden. Over her years of employment, she had sensitive assignments she can’t talk about.

Would she consider being re-employed overseas part time in the Foreign Service? Yes --- and she highly recommends the Foreign Service to young people: "It’s a young person’s game and a chance to see a broader world.... Your perspective will change as you see how the rest of the world lives and learn about their cultures."

 

Monique is still getting settled in Smithfield. She anticipates being active with her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, and is looking for volunteer opportunities in the community. She has so much to share about her fascinating life as a diplomat and world traveler.