Where We Call Home

A diplomat reflects on her adventures abroad.

Noah Willman

It’s said that character defies description, but the U.S. Department of State evaluates hopeful Foreign Service officers against thirteen dimensions — or qualifications — of an ideal candidate. First is composure, which diplomat Katherine Ntiamoah (B.A. ’08, International Studies, Political Science) has in spades. Graced with an unstudied confidence, she commands attention; if inclined, she could probably silence a room with a single look. But that same poise also serves to put others at ease.

When I ask Katherine which of her personal traits she esteems most highly, without hesitation she names the second of the thirteen dimensions: adaptability.

“To be able to go from Kinshasa, Congo, to Singapore to Pakistan to Belgium to Mexico — it’s a wild ride,” she says. “Every country, it’s a new commitment to being flexible and adaptable and learning about new places. I think that’s really what I’m most proud of.”

One look at her smart red-framed glasses and Lucite sculptural heels and it’s clear that Katherine’s definition of “adaptability” doesn’t mean “blending in.” Impressive, bold, yet approachable — you get the sense she knows exactly who she is.

"When I meet other Foreign Service officers, I realize we all kind of have the same personality: You like being busy a lot, you like learning new things all the time, you're okay with being uncomfortable, and the unknown doesn't scare you."

It seems fitting, then, that our conversation continually returns to a central topic: the question not of who but rather where Katherine is. In one sense the answer is obvious: We meet in Arlington, Virginia, a stone's throw from D.C., in a quiet nook of her apartment lobby. Outside spring clouds hang overripe, threatening to split. The environment reflects the kind of liminal space — somewhere between sun and rain, outdoors and in, city and suburb, public and private — that colors the lull between assignments.

“This is my longest time living in the United States. I haven’t had time to slow down and establish a routine,” Katherine tells me. “Working as a diplomat is always ‘go go go.’” But now? “I have time to think,” she says.

Given her accomplishments, “go go go” seems like an understatement. Katherine launched her career in public diplomacy via the Rangel Fellowship program, which recruits underrepresented groups to the Foreign Service. In addition to living as an expat in six different countries, she’s earned a master’s degree in international studies from the University of Denver. She built houses for Habitat for Humanity, reviewed books, planned galas. She learned Spanish and French for work, videography and photography in her spare time.

“When I meet other Foreign Service officers, I realize we all kind of have the same personality: You like being busy a lot, you like learning new things all the time, you're okay with being uncomfortable, and the unknown doesn't scare you. And if it does, you kind of just learn how to deal with it.”

Katherine credits her parents, who she describes as “fearless,” as inspiration. They came to the U.S. as students, part of the immigration wave of the 60s and 70s. Initially planning to use their education to better their home country of Ghana, they instead stayed in the States, eventually settling in Indiana, near the Illinois border.

“We were one of the first black families to live in Munster,” Katherine says. “Interacting with people that didn’t look like me, that didn’t understand my culture or the food that I was used to eating, at first it was very hard. But now I call Munster home.”

Volunteering as a family also left an impression.

“Seeing my parents, who had just moved to the United States, giving back to a country that they had made their home — it was just something that I had always grown up with. When it was time for me to pick a career, I knew that it had to be something in public service.”

Ntiamoah is currently learning Arabic for her job with the U.S. Department of State.

As an undergrad at IU, Katherine lived in an international dorm, which exposed her to study-abroad opportunities. She selected Ghana, which she had visited previously with family, in part from a desire to connect with the country on her own terms. It was her first experience traveling without her parents’ guidance or the creature comforts of home.

“We didn’t have electricity, sometimes for twelve hours a day,” she says, and tells me about reading by the glow of her cell phone, writing a term paper and “forgetting to press save and it all disappearing because the lights went out.”

But perhaps thanks to those challenges, she muses, the bonds she formed in Ghana proved lasting. Eleven years later and she’s still in touch, planning to visit study-abroad friends on her next cross-country road trip.

Road tripping has become a home-leave tradition for Katherine and her husband. “Home leave” is State Department lingo for vacation, with the additional aim of reacquainting Foreign Service employees with American culture. Currently, Katherine is undergoing the equivalent of new employee training, which for her means one year of intensive Arabic.

“We’re not learning the word pillow, we’re learning, like, ‘nuclear non-proliferation’ and ‘environmental degradation,’” she says “Things that will help us with diplomatic conversations.”

As a generalist, Katherine not only changes location every two or so years; she changes jobs as well. “It's fun,” she says. “It’s fun and stressful, because you realize everything is open.” Her duties range from managing multimillion dollar grants to discussing counterterrorism strategies and the state of women’s rights. “Our days are not the same.”

Engaging as Foreign Service work may be, it’s rarely as glamorous as those outside the Washington bubble might think.

“If I would’ve known [as a student] that diplomacy and the world would be as dangerous as it’s gotten, I don’t know if I would’ve believed it.”

As a student, Katherine envisioned cocktail parties, groundbreakings, high-powered government meetings, not the “nitty-gritty diplomacy that it is now,” she says. “I didn’t think security would be such a big issue. I think diplomacy is harder than people realize. We live in places that aren’t always easy, that aren’t always comfortable. And while I think we’re all adaptable, it’s not always easy. It’s really not.”

"When it was time for me to pick a career, I knew that it had to be something in public service."

When asked what the moral of her life story would be — what advice would she give young Katherine, looking back — she tells me, with a wave, “Don’t worry about it. It’ll happen.” But hers is not a laissez-faire ethos so much as a warning against excessive anxiety and over-planning in light of our predictably unpredictable future. She clarifies: “Usually by the time I get to where I’m going I’m already on plan Z. I was worried about A, B, C, and D being perfect and it didn’t even matter because it was going to work in the way it had to work.”

Toward the end of our interview, Katherine tells me about her current work as a press and public affairs officer in the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. She’s stateside for now, but wherever her home may be, rest assured Katherine knows how to make the most of it.

“If there are more people on the world stage who are flourishing and thriving,” she says, “then I’m into it.”

Ellen Scheuermann

Ellen Scheuermann is a writer and editor with a background in journalism and advertising. She earned a B.A. in philosophy from St. John's College and an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Oregon. Her fiction won first place in the Blue Mesa Review Summer Contest, selected by Antonya Nelson. A native of Washington, D.C., she lives and writes in Texas. Connect with her on LinkedIn.