Diverse Paths to Diplomacy
By Fran Czuk
Lifelong learning, tight-knit community, varied opportunities and global perspectives: sometimes it’s hard to tell whether Lisa (Brenneman) Prothero ’08, Kyle Hartwell ’07, and Jess Tesoriero ’07 are talking about their Kalamazoo College experiences or their work for the U.S. Department of State.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that these three graduates of a tiny liberal arts college in Michigan have found themselves working together in the State Department’s Operations Center in Washington, D.C. They can draw clear lines between what they learned and experienced at K, and the skills they use constantly in their roles as watch officers in the 24-hour communications and crisis management center.
Although they took different paths to the Operations Center, they revel in the small-world feel of working side by side as K grads to monitor world events, prepare briefings for department leaders and coordinate communication and crisis response.
Kyle Hartwell ’07
A foreign service officer, Hartwell was a watch officer in the Operations Center from July 2022 to summer 2023, when she took on a position as political-military desk officer for the Republic of Korea.
Born and raised in Ann Arbor, Hartwell came to K with no idea what she wanted to do with her life, other than study languages and become fluent in something besides English.
At K, Hartwell ended up with a major in German and a concentration in classical studies—plus “almost a minor” in religion. She was on the swim team every season that she was on campus. Hartwell briefly thought she might want to be an archaeologist, but after participating in an archeological dig in Ireland, she decided it was not for her.
“The encouragement to try different things was so helpful,” Hartwell said. “Sometimes you have to figure out what you don’t want to do.”
In terms of finding out what she did want to do, Hartwell spent a crucial six months on study abroad in Erlangen, Germany. She wrote her Senior Integrated Project (SIP) on the German work culture and market, based on an internship with a company that made corporate swag.
After graduation, Hartwell returned to Germany in 2007 on a yearlong Fulbright fellowship. She stayed until 2011, teaching English at the university in Erlangen, to private business clients, and at a senior center in Nuremberg.
When she felt she had learned what she could from teaching English, she returned to the U.S. to study international affairs at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. While there, she got an internship at the State Department that would set her on course for the next 10-plus years.
The internship led to the Pathways Program, a training program for recent graduates, which then led to a job in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. In 2015, she took a one-year position in the White House as a special assistant in the European Affairs Directorate. There she served in a support role for a team of policymakers working on European affairs in former President Barack Obama’s administration before transitioning to foreign service.
As a foreign service officer, Hartwell has been assigned to the U.S. embassies in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Tallinn, Estonia, and to the State Department Operations Center.
Lisa Prothero ’08
Prothero recently transitioned over the summer from a senior watch officer to the Bureau of International Organizations, where she now works on multilateral sanctions issues. She is a member of the civil service, meaning she is based primarily in Washington, D.C.
She came from Sturgis, Michigan, to Kalamazoo College knowing she wanted to study language, especially German. She graduated with a double major in German and international studies, with a minor in French.
During her time at K, Prothero was heavily involved with Kaleidoscope, serving as co-president her final year. She studied abroad in Erlangen for six months, completed an internship with the Green Party and wrote a literary analysis in German for her SIP.
“I studied a lot of advanced language, and some of those classes were really small, so there was nowhere to hide,” Prothero said. “I enjoyed that and felt it helped me thrive academically. With the breadth of classes, I was able to study things like philosophy and anthropology that I had never delved into before. Meeting people who were passionate about different issues and building relationships with people who had different points of view and focus, who were smart and intentional and driven, was another highlight for me. I was grateful for those kinds of experiences.”
At graduation, Prothero knew she did not want to live abroad or teach. Initially unsure what else she could do with a degree in language, she decided to focus on her international studies major and went straight into a master’s program in international affairs at the George Washington University. She completed internships with the Internal Revenue Service and with a nonprofit focused on women’s economic empowerment.
After receiving her master’s, Prothero started at the State Department in 2010, with a stint as a watch officer in the Operations Center. She built her career working in several different offices focusing on U.S. citizens living and traveling abroad, as well as a few years working on North Korean issues. She also spent a few years outside the State Department working in counterterrorism at the FBI. She eventually returned to the Operations Center as a senior watch officer.
Jessica Tesoriero ’07
Tesoriero is a foreign service officer currently serving as a Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) watch officer. Unlike Prothero and Hartwell, she followed a direct path to the State Department, as her interest in international relations began before high school and grew through her participation in high school Model United Nations.
A Maryland native whose family lived in the Ann Arbor area at the time she attended K, Tesoriero double majored in political science and French, and she spent her study abroad on a homestay in Dakar, Senegal.
For her SIP, she wrote a comparative historical analysis of the two Camp David summits of the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. She completed an internship at Wayne State University’s Center for Peace and Conflict Studies.
Tesoriero participated in the LandSea orientation program at K before returning as a program leader.
Outside of academics, Tesoriero participated in LandSea before returning as a leader, sang in several choirs, participated in two other students’ performance-based SIPs, was a member of Kaleidoscope, lived in the Women’s Resource Center for a year, and tutored students at Woodward Elementary School.
“I loved that at K, you could do all of the things you wanted to do,” Tesoriero said. “We weren’t supposed to be stuck in our bubble. We were supposed to be part of the broader community, and that really stayed with me.”
Tesoriero went from K to grad school at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. As part of a class on sustainable development, she returned to Dakar, and even visited her host family, when the class selected Tesoriero’s proposal to use Senegal as a case study. She also went to Jordan on a National Security Education Program Boren fellowship to learn Arabic. While there, she joined a choir that offered her the opportunity to travel to Israel and Jerusalem for the first time.
“That was a really interesting experience, as an American Jew, to go into Israel for the first time with a group of ex-pats and Palestinian Jordanians,” Tesoriero said. “Even skills that weren’t directly part of my K-Plan brought me to places where I wanted to go and allowed me to see things from different perspectives.”
During grad school, she completed internships with the State Department and with National Defense University. She then spent four years as a civil servant in a counterterrorism rewards program, including a rotation in Kabul, Afghanistan, and one in a U.S. senator’s office as a foreign policy advisor.
Her next position was as part of the team that supports the secretary of state when the secretary travels. After that, she moved to the foreign service, serving tours in Lagos, Nigeria, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Israel, before joining the INR Watch.
From K to the State Department
Hartwell, Prothero and Tesoriero knew each other slightly at K. They had mutual friends; Hartwell and Prothero think they had some German classes together. For the most part, however, they traveled in different circles.
In the Watch, each has served in a slightly different role, with Prothero managing a team and Tesoriero handling highly classified information for the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. In addition, the nature of the 24-hour center and the shift work required to cover that means they don’t always work at the same time. Yet they are all part of a tight-knit team.
“I think it’s rare in a professional environment to build the relationships that we’re able to build working at the Operations Center,” Prothero said. “You’re in intense situations with people, you’re working 12-hour shifts, you’re working overnights, holidays. You’re giving up a certain part of your personal life to serve in this professional capacity. You have to rely on each other and trust each other, because the stakes are high, so the bonds you form and the connections you make are special and strong and very enduring.”
Depending on shifts and assignments, Tesoriero said, the three alums work closely together at times.
“There’s one chair called the emergency action officer, and it’s their job to pay attention to crises popping up around the world,” Tesoriero said. “When Kyle sits in that chair, say there’s a suspicious package at an embassy; her colleague in a different chair is going to get the phone call, and they’re going to say it out loud, because they parrot everything they hear on the phone. My ears are going to perk up, because I’m looking for broad changes; maybe this isn’t just one suspicious package; maybe this is a bomb, maybe there’s a bigger plot, maybe there’s a protest that’s going to escalate and an entire region is going to destabilize. Then I would talk to Kyle and say, ‘What are you hearing? What are you thinking?’ We share notes and try to figure out what’s happening and who needs to know about it. Lisa, the senior watch officer, is who we’ll tell when we decide to escalate something to the secretary or other principals.”
That sharing of perspectives emerges from a strong K foundation.
“I manage a team of five people and they have such diverse and interesting experiences,” Prothero said. “At K, you come back your junior or senior year from abroad and almost everyone’s been gone for six months, and you’re talking to each other about what you did and what you learned. I try to lean on my team and draw from the unique experiences that they have. I have people who speak Arabic and I have people who served in Mexico, Lithuania, India and everywhere, so I’m able to draw on that and celebrate everyone’s unique and diverse backgrounds. I find that to be incredible and rewarding and it reminds me of K.”
“One of the things that makes K unique is that so many people study abroad,” Hartwell said. “When you come back, you’re not like, ‘Oh my gosh, nobody gets it.’ Everybody gets it. They just had a different experience, and because everyone goes to a different place, it opens your eyes. Even if you only went to one place for study abroad, your friends will be in other places, and so you can follow along their journeys. Even though I was focusing on Germany and learning German, my best friend from K was learning Mandarin, and that was my first exposure vicariously, through him, to learning about China.”
Leveraging others’ diverse backgrounds and experiences is a key skill in the State Department.
“When you have 17 different people looking at the same reports, it’s so interesting to see the different perspectives that people have and the different conclusions that people can draw,” Tesoriero said. “My favorite part of the job is always related to DEIA—diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility. There is a direct relationship between DEIA and intelligence work because our unique lived experiences shape the conclusions we draw. Getting people into both the Foreign Service, and into the entire intelligence community, from diverse backgrounds, and making it a positive and supportive environment for everybody who is in, will make us better at our jobs, and it will make our institution better.”
Much like K, the State Department offers depth and breadth.
“There are so many varied opportunities in the State Department,” Prothero said. “I have friends who work in, for instance, public diplomacy, which is outreach and engagement and those types of things. I worked in consular issues for five or six years, and that was satisfying and rewarding work. Everything you do has a direct impact, whether it’s helping an American citizen overseas who is in trouble or helping facilitate the issuance of visas to people to go overseas or to come to the United States. You’re looking at different fraud cases or helping people immigrate. You don’t have to focus on one area. On the other hand, there are a lot of civil servants who are in jobs that require deep or specific knowledge. There is an opportunity there for people to stay in one office and develop their careers based on their areas of interest or areas of expertise.”
For Prothero, the Watch in particular offers an opportunity to step back and see the big picture of what is important to the highest-level diplomats and policymakers, as well as to help ensure those people have the best information possible.
“Working at the State Department since 2010, and seeing different administrations come through, the goal of diplomacy is always there, but sometimes the path you take to get there is different,” Prothero said. “I think the department is full of good people trying to do good work. To me, the ultimate goal of promoting diplomacy in the world and serving as a resource for Americans overseas never goes away. Seeing how we are enacting, applying and advancing that through different leadership is really informative.”
K’s focus on global perspective and study abroad is valued throughout the State Department, Tesoriero said.
“It shows that you can live and work abroad, if that’s your goal, but it also shows that you can work in different environments, that they can literally put you anywhere and have you do anything,” Tesoriero said. “And that is a fantastic selling point for future opportunities.”
“In the Foreign Service, you work at a U.S. Embassy for one to three years,” Hartwell adds. “One year if you’re somewhere really dangerous; if it’s a really nice place, you can stay there for three years. You cannot stay more than four years at a single job. We have worldwide availability, which means that we declare ourselves available to go anywhere in the world that the U.S. government wants to send us. We have a little bit of choice in where that is; we have to apply for and compete for jobs every time we have to get a new one, but we are guaranteed that we will get a job. I think it’s really interesting to be able to change your job but still have the safety of keeping a job. You get to reinvent your life every couple of years, while still having some structure. I feel very lucky to be able to do it.”
Terms to Know
U.S. Department of State/The State Department: An executive department of the U.S. federal government responsible for the country’s foreign policy and relations. The State Department negotiates treaties and agreements with foreign entities, advises the U.S. president on international relations, administers diplomatic missions, and represents the United States at the United Nations.
United States Foreign Service: The primary personnel system used by the diplomatic service of the U.S. federal government to carry out the foreign policy of the United States and aid U.S. citizens abroad.
Foreign Service Officer: A commissioned member of the United States Foreign Service, who formulates and implements U.S. foreign policy. FSOs serve one- to three-year terms overseas as members of U.S. embassies, consulates and diplomatic missions as well as on assignment in Washington, D.C., at command centers, service academies and Congress. At least every four years, they apply and compete for new jobs within the service.
Civil Service Officer: Civil service officers help drive diplomatic principles and initiatives from U.S. locations, working on issues ranging from improving trade opportunities for U.S. businesses, to helping Americans adopt children from overseas, to monitoring human rights issues.
Operations Center (Ops): Composed of two parts—the Watch, and Crisis Management and Strategy—Ops exists to get the right information to the right people at the right time.
The Watch: Watch officers monitor news across the globe, assist U.S. citizens abroad, alert and brief officials on relevant developments and facilitate telephone diplomacy.
The Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR): As both a bureau in the Department of State and a member of the Intelligence Community, the INR is the only U.S. intelligence organization whose primary responsibility is to provide intelligence to inform diplomacy and support U.S. diplomats.
For more information on internship and scholarship opportunities at the State Department, visit careers.state.gov/interns-fellows/.