Howard F. Jeter
“Nantes chose me!” says Ambassador Howard F. Jeter who was selected to spend a year on the IES Abroad Nantes program in 1967-68. His foundation in language learning and intercultural understanding set the stage for a 27-year career with the U.S. State Department where he served twice as a U.S. Ambassador – first to Botswana and later to Nigeria. After retiring from the State Department, he pursued two more rewarding careers working to develop business relationships with African countries, and now is working on eradicating neglected diseases around the world. For Ambassador Jeter, it all started in Nantes.
IES Abroad: As a student at Morehouse College, how did you choose to study abroad in Nantes?
Ambassador Jeter: Morehouse has a longstanding relationship with IES Abroad, and every year they selected a group of students, known as Merrill Scholars. I was chosen as one of six students to study abroad on an IES Abroad program. I did not choose Nantes. I was told that because I was studying French I would go on the Nantes program. Other students went to IES Abroad programs in London, Vienna, Madrid, and Paris. I was really happy in Nantes. It was a small but vibrant city with a lot of history, and it had many advantages over a larger city like Paris. We went to Paris several times, but living in Nantes was preferable for me.
IES Abroad: What are one or two very special memories you hold from your time in Nantes?
HJ: The first week of orientation was a sojourn in the Loire Valley and a wonderful introduction to France and French culture. We also got to know our cohort of students. Even at that point, we were strongly discouraged from speaking English, and that really set the stage for intensive French language study. My host family, M. and Mme Leland and their son and daughter were a close-knit family. Typical of many French families, they did a lot together. I was impressed with the warmth and inclusiveness with which I was received. Moreover, Jimmie Milhouse, a fellow Morehouse student, was my roommate and we often studied together and helped one another a lot. I liked all of my classes at IES Abroad, except for my phonetics class. I told the Center Director, Madame Hugues that I did not understand why I needed to take that class, but she said I did, and in the end, I did! The classes were very, very good, and the professors were excellent. I learned very quickly that the more I spoke the language, the better I became.
IES Abroad: What challenges did you face while studying abroad and how did you overcome them?
HJ: Adapting to a new culture and a new way of doing things and being away from my family were challenging. But I viewed these obstacles just as things I had to work through during the first few months and I did. Probably the biggest challenge concerned the Moped that I purchased when I was in Nantes. Learning to maneuver on French streets was difficult, and I did have one accident when I was there. It happened on a cold, rainy evening, when riding a moped was always a particular challenge. But I used it to go everywhere in Nantes. It was really essential to getting around in the city.
IES Abroad: What skills that you developed during study abroad did you apply to your 27-year career in diplomacy?
HJ: Oddly enough, I only occasionally used French in my career. Later on, I learned Brazilian Portuguese when I was assigned to Mozambique, and Kiswahili, which I used in Tanzania. But having learned French, it made learning Portuguese much easier. There were a lot of similarities. In retrospect, I realize how much the IES Abroad program taught me to adapt to other cultures. Living in Europe is not so different for Americans, but once you go farther afield, the differences are greater. Europe was a great stepping stone for me down that path. It also gave me a strong foundation for intercultural understanding and appreciation of other ways of life. It all began in Nantes. Otherwise, how could I have done it? I credit the program for that. IES Abroad Nantes left the most indelible mark on me of anything I’ve ever done. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I learned a lot. It was the springboard for me to do so many other things, and it was how I became involved in international affairs. Having been bitten by the “travel bug,” a year after Nantes, I took advantage of an opportunity to do three months of volunteer work on a rural development in Africa. The rest is history.
IES Abroad: You served as U.S. Ambassador to Botswana (1993-1996), Nigeria (2000-2003), and as Special Presidential Envoy to Liberia (1996-1997). When you look back at your career with the State Department what are you most proud of?
HJ: The most difficult assignment I had was as the President’s Special Envoy for Liberia because of the volatile issues we were dealing with in trying to end a very devastating civil war. Nigeria was one of the biggest players in that situation, and we had a difficult bilateral relationship with the country at that time. We had to gauge how to best handle that relationship, and that difficult task was entrusted to me. I traveled to Nigeria over fifteen times during my assignment. The U.S. Government decided that while we differed on many issues, ending the war in Liberia, which was destabilizing the entire West African sub-region, was the one area where we and Nigeria had common goals. The Nigerians agreed. The job entailed an enormous amount of global travel, especially to Europe and West Africa. I think I clocked nearly a million air miles. It was difficult to deal with so many different interests and personalities, sometimes with warlords, governments, regional organizations, and civil society groups. So, to have played a role in halting that war is probably one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done in my career.
I am also proud of what I accomplished in Nigeria as Ambassador. Nigeria is such a big, hubristic country with a rolling set of challenges 365 days a year. It is the number one country in Africa in terms of influence, population, wealth, energy resources, and reach. The Nigerians are very active diplomatically. They are a very highly educated and highly motivated people. To grow the close relationships that we did with the Nigerians, gain their confidence and trust, and get them to do some things they might not otherwise have done took a lot of patience and hard work. Likewise, they probably got us to do some things we otherwise would not have considered. It was very professionally rewarding and intellectually stimulating.
IES Abroad: Following your career with the State Department, what has been some of your most fulfilling work?
HJ: After I retired from the State Department, I joined Ambassador Andrew Young’s consulting firm, GoodWorks International. I helped to establish and managed their Washington, DC office. We did lots of work facilitating mutually beneficial business and investment relations between U.S. companies and Africa. When I left GoodWorks International, I served briefly as Interim President of the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation. Subsequently, I started my own small consulting firm, including service on the Boards of two small but promising start-up oil companies.
But what I’m doing now, as a volunteer, is probably one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done in my life. As a member of the Board of Directors of the Sir Emeka Offor Foundation, I work in my spare time with three well known non-governmental organizations: Books for Africa, The Carter Center and Rotary International. Through Books for Africa, the Foundation is now the largest donor of books and computers to schools, libraries, and universities on the African continent. So far, more than 2 million books and over 1,000 computers have been donated with a cumulative value of more than $22 million.
The Foundation’s work with Rotary International is primarily focused on polio eradication, although our founder has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars to Rotary programs on maternal and child health care, education and literacy, and peace studies. His donation of $2.5 million to Rotary’s global campaign on polio eradication was matched 2-to-1 by the Gates Foundation and is one of the largest individual donations made to the Rotary Foundation. In Nigeria within the next 22 months, if mass immunization continues on its current trajectory, the World Health Organization will declare Nigeria polio-free. This will be a huge victory over one of the world’s most debilitating diseases. I have seen the human suffering that polio causes and if one can claim even a small role in its eradication, this is something very meaningful, very special.
Nigeria has over 40 percent of the world’s cases of River Blindness, a disease which could potentially affect up to 30 million people. You have probably never heard of River Blindness. That is because it is a truly neglected tropical disease. Few donor governments, global foundations or major non-governmental organizations have paid much attention to this sight-robbing disease. To help meet this challenge, The Sir Emeka Offor Foundation has entered into a partnership with the Atlanta-based Carter Center with a pledge of $10 million to accelerate The Carter Center’s field work to eliminate River Blindness in Nigeria. With continuing support from the Government of Nigeria and Merck and Company, and the Carter Center’s outstanding field work to eliminate this disease, we at the Sir Emeka Offor Foundation are confident that this six-year goal can be achieved.
My work with these philanthropic endeavors has given new meaning to my life. The empathy, kindness, caring, commitment, and generosity of the people and organizations that I have encountered and with whom I work have made me a better, more hopeful, and a much more determined person. For this, I am grateful.
IES Abroad: Having perceived the world from so many vantage points, in what fields would you most like to see U.S. college graduates apply their skills?
HJ: Young people today need to understand that we now live in a global society, a global economy, and a global political system. In order to be competitive, they are going to have to do things that perhaps their peers did not have to do several decades ago – like learning languages. Because if they don’t, they will not be competitive. They’re not just competing with their classmates in their town, city, state, or even their peers in the United States. They are competing with people from all over the world. So, if you want to work for a multinational corporation, for example, you may be competing with people from China, Britain, France, Brazil, Malaysia, Egypt, Nigeria, and beyond. I look at some of the big oil companies in the U.S., and they don’t only have staff from the United States; they have Nigerian and Angolan headquarters staff, for example, because that’s where they operate. They want those employees in their U.S. offices because they speak the languages of their home countries and they know what is going on there. You’ve got to know at least one foreign language, and two or more if possible, because your competitors will know several. You have to be able to adapt to different cultures and be culturally sensitive. Students in college today need to understand that studying abroad is really not a luxury, but rather a necessity for career success in our inter-dependent, globalized world.
IES Abroad: Where will you encourage your grandchildren to study abroad and why?
HJ: There is always value in learning a romance language, so study abroad in a European country where a romance language is spoken is still very valuable. (My daughter studied in France, Italy, and the UK, and is currently studying Chinese in Shanghai, where she lives with her family). But there are several emerging countries that now warrant exploring that are going to be big players in the years ahead. The so-called BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) come to mind. It would be good to learn Portuguese, Russian or Hindi, and Chinese is especially valuable. In Africa, learning Hausa or Kiswahili would be useful because those languages are widely spoken in multiple countries. What I’ve found in my work and travel is that if you go to a country and can speak even a few basic words and greetings, the people are more receptive. And, if you speak the language conversationally, you are then set to be ‘in’ the culture, and people will share more with you than they otherwise would.
For students who are contemplating a career in international affairs, study abroad is a must. And international affairs is not just the State Department or other agencies of the U.S. Government. That is only a small part of a much larger mosaic of career possibilities. There are so many career opportunities in multinational corporations, journalism, international institutions, and non-governmental organizations. Study abroad is one of the best things you can do to enhance your career prospects and broaden your life choices.