By Jake Weber
The South American country of Suriname has less than 500,000 citizens, but nonetheless, it's "a cultural mecca of Creole, Javanese, Maroons, Amerindians, Chinese and Hindustani people," said Katie Kirsch, '12. "Religious freedom and tolerance are evident everywhere, from the synagogue that shares the parking lot with a mosque to the elaborately inked buses or ‘waggies’ that depict celebrities of all cultures."
Kirsch, along with 2011 graduates Courtney Meyer and Claire Kaisler, was one of the first three undergraduate interns selected to work for the U.S. embassy in Paramaribo, Suriname's capital. During their ten-week internships, Meyer, Kaisler and Kirsch worked with the embassy's political-economic, consular and public diplomacy departments, researching and writing reports, attending conferences, evaluating visa applications, and assisting with events related to the embassy’s priorities of democracy, human rights, and environmental sustainability.
Along with their many embassy activities, the interns also studied Dutch, an important administrative language within the former Dutch colony. "Dutch is a tricky language," Kirsch said. "Though the roots are often similar to English and there are many similar words, there are also many that were surprisingly incomprehensible at first glance."
The internships were procured with the help of a relationship between Albion College biology professor Dean McCurdy and U.S. Ambassador John R. Nay, who met when McCurdy began doing research in Suriname in 2008. Meyer and Kirsch traveled to Suriname as part of Albion College's Honors Program Traveling Seminar in 2010 and both were interested in returning. "The Honors trip opened the door to discover more of this small, incredibly diverse culture, probably considered more Caribbean than South American," Kirsch commented. "I couldn’t wait to find an excuse to go back."
"We have learned a lot about how an embassy operates, and about what diplomacy means on a day-to-day and person-to-person basis," said Meyer, who used her background as an economics and international studies major and Ford Institute alumna to help evaluate the activities and progress of the parliament and president, elected in 2010. "The post in Paramaribo is small, and this played to our advantage, because it afforded me the opportunity to do things like draft cables and plan a lecture on child labor featuring the first lady, two things that interns posted in cities like Geneva or London could never dream of. But beyond that, the internship instilled in me a sense of maturity that I hadn’t realized I needed until I was attending conferences and official parties as a quasi-representative of our government’s presence in Suriname."
Meyer recently passed the Foreign Service Officer Test, required for employees of the U.S. Department of State looking to work abroad. She is now beginning what could be a year of essay submissions, interviews, and medical and language examinations to hopefully return to another embassy around the world as an officer. “A career like this would yield an interesting vantage point for my future endeavors in development policy and poverty alleviation," Meyer said. "Had anyone suggested even four months ago that I would consider a trajectory of this nature, I would have said that they were severely mistaken because my objective was serving people. Now I understand that diplomacy is about serving the world.”
Kirsch spent time after hours gathering research for her Honors thesis, a comparison of her visits to two remote Saramaccan villages in Suriname with a Cameroonian village she visited while studying abroad. The Saramaccan villages, Kirsch noted, were settled deep in the jungle in the 17th century by escaped slaves brought to Suriname from West Africa. The remoteness of the Saramaccan villages, says Kirsch, has made them distinct, in both culture and time, from the rest of Suriname.
"The Saramaccan villages left me feeling like I was back in Cameroon, only a century earlier," Kirsch explained. "My research concerns the globalization of Euro-American culture in the two places. Given that the Saramaccan villages seemed to be an anachronism compared to the Cameroonian village, I expected them to have less Euro-American cultural influences, but this was not necessarily the case."
“Experiences abroad that require cultural immersion and speaking another tongue have always had an enormous impact on my studies and life outlook, because they require you to step outside of who you think you are and into what you think you could become," Meyer reflected. "Even after my initial visit to Suriname in 2010, I knew that this was a country that would always hold a special place in my heart, because of what it taught me about the realities of life in a developing country. The chance to return was not only an experience that I am unbelievably grateful for, but it was a life-altering, career-molding experience, in ways that I never anticipated.”