After studying abroad his junior year in Paris, Adam Namm knew he wanted a career that was internationally focused and took the U.S. Foreign Exam on a whim, because it was free and would be a challenge. Little did he know he would embark on a career in the U.S. Foreign Service that has taken him across the world from the Dominican Republic to Pakistan to Colombia. Now, 28 years later, as U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador, Ambassador Namm reflects on how studying abroad in Paris gave him skills he continues to draw upon today, and shares how he brings a unique style of diplomacy through music—as member of a local blues band in Quito.
IES Abroad: As a student at Brown University, how did you hear about IES Abroad and what motivated you to study abroad in Paris?
Ambassador Namm: I had participated in an exchange program my sophomore year in high school. A group of us from White Plains, NY traveled to southern France and lived with students and their families for three weeks, then a couple of months later the French students whom we stayed with came to stay with us. I loved the experience and knew I wanted to study in France during college. When the time came to pick a program, IES Abroad’s Paris program seemed like the right fit given the ability to take courses at a variety of Paris universities, in addition to taking courses at the IES Abroad Center.
IES Abroad: What are some of the most influential memories from your time in Paris?
AN: The people, both fellow American students and the French I knew during the year, including a Parisian girlfriend who was my entrée to “real life” beyond the typical exchange experience. I lived in Montparnasse and loved frequenting the crêperies in the neighborhood. I also took advantage of travel opportunities, visiting many other parts of France, Europe, and even made it to Morocco. All unforgettable, seminal experiences that led me to a career in the U.S. Foreign Service.
IES Abroad: How did you change the most during your time in Paris? Did the experience shape the way you think in a profound way today?
AN: My worldview changed, precisely because I was living in a different part of the world and came to understand French and European perspectives, which didn’t always coincide with American ways of thinking. I recall the French language teacher that led my high school exchange program saying before we departed, “You will think the French are dirty because they don’t shower every day – but realize the French think Americans are dirty because they have to shower every day.” That’s a funny line but really makes one think about perspectives, whether cultural, social, or political.
IES Abroad: How did you decide to get involved with the U.S. Foreign Service? How did your time with IES Abroad in Paris impact that decision?
AN: Having loved my junior year abroad with IES Abroad, I wanted a career that was internationally focused. My major at Brown University was International Relations, and a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer came to speak at a “career night,” which got me interested in the Foreign Service. Before that night, I knew what the State Department did, but hadn’t realized there was such a thing as the Foreign Service. Just about every other student majoring in International Relations planned to take the Foreign Service exam, and I thought, “Why not?” It’s a free exam and I figured it would be a challenge. When I finally got into the Foreign Service (about two years after taking the first exam), I thought I’d stay in for four or five years, live in a couple of interesting places, and then get out and get a “real job” in a consulting firm or bank. Little did I know that I’d be in for 28 years…and counting!
IES Abroad: Were there lessons learned in Paris that helped you in the early days of your career?
AN: Adaptability. IES Abroad placed us with Parisian families, and in my case my host family turned out to be an older nun. Her rules were much stricter than I was used to – for example, my IES Abroad roommate and I were not allowed to use the kitchen other than for breakfast. We had dinner with her twice a week – that was one of the terms of the living agreement – and she served us foods that were new to me, like rabbit. She had lived through World War II and drummed into us how good we had it, recounting her memories of eating rats during the war. She was right, of course, about our level of luxury, and taught me to put myself in others’ shoes.
IES Abroad: As U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador, you bring your own approachable personal style into your diplomacy through music. How did this approach come about and how has it helped break down barriers?
AN: I’ve played piano since age five and played in musical groups since elementary school. I’ve played in bands throughout my Foreign Service career, including in the Dominican Republic and Pakistan. It’s something I love to do and takes me away from work. I realized early on in my ambassadorship, actually before I even arrived in Ecuador, that music would be a way of presenting my “human” side, which would show Ecuadorians that the U.S. Ambassador isn’t some stiff who only gives speeches and attends cocktail parties. I’ve played with a local blues band since shortly after arriving, and besides playing gigs in bars and restaurants around Quito, our embassy sponsored a six-city blues tour to share this very American style of music with Ecuadorians. Music has really been a great part of my experience here.
IES Abroad: Do you feel that your experience in Paris continues to have an influence on you today?
AN: Totally! My IES Abroad year provided me with wanderlust that has lasted my entire life, and studying in France provided me with skills that have helped me work in many countries and cultures…including Washington, DC, which has a culture of its own!
IES Abroad: When you think back over your career in the U.S. Foreign Service, what are you most proud of?
AN: Leaving, I hope, each embassy, consulate, and Washington office that I have worked in better off than I found them. I think that applies to any endeavor; the idea that you can improve things by working hard and treating people fairly.
IES Abroad: Is there any fun fact that you would like to share about yourself?
AN: I have two children, ages almost 20-years-old and 10 months! It’s great to have become a father again in middle age…keeping me on my toes!