by DENISE YOUNG
Tourists to Mauritius can ride giant tortoises or bask in the sun. The republic's rainbow-hued flag is as vibrant as its culture, reflected in brightly colored buildings, statues, and temples across the country. Seychelles was recently featured on the television show "Amazing Race."
But Mary Jo Wills (M.B.A. '94) isn't on a vacation or reality show. As the U.S. ambassador to Mauritius and Seychelles, Wills spends most of her time in Port Louis, Mauritius' capital city, representing U.S. interests and helping to shape relations with these two island nations. "The opportunity to serve as ambassador is the pinnacle of any professional diplomat's career. And it is an honor and privilege to serve the government and people of the United States," said Wills, who has held the post since February 2010.
The nations have a history as colorful as their tropical landscapes. Uninhabited for much of human history, both countries were French and British colonies. Citizens have ancestries stretching to Africa, India, China, France, and Great Britain. It's typical for citizens to speak as many as three languages, but most speak similar versions of Creole. Religious beliefs vary from Hinduism to Roman Catholicism to Buddhism.
Wills' job is varied as well. "Every day is different, every day is challenging, and every day is very interesting," she said. Because of the eight-hour time difference, her mornings are often spent catching up on what transpired in Washington overnight. Staff meetings, speeches at conferences and cultural events, or sessions with policymakers, business leaders, colleagues, or the prime or foreign minister of either country ensure that she stays busy.
While she enjoys meeting new people, learning about other cultures, and telling others about the United States and shared values and goals between nations, Wills never forgets the importance of any ambassador's mission. "When we're overseas, what we're really doing is being a bridge between the people of the United States and the people of other countries," Wills said.
The presence of a U.S. representative allows for substantial conversations that wouldn't be possible otherwise. "It is easy to simply put out a message or make a statement—that can be done from Washington," said Wills. "Real communication involves dialogue face-to-face. The only way to communicate effectively is to know those circumstances, the history, and the people involved and to listen to them, as well as talk. [This commitment requires] people on the ground who know how to communicate with our friends abroad and who know how to communicate with Washington."
A graduate of Tech's M.B.A. program, Wills is also pursuing her doctorate in public affairs and public administration at Virginia Tech's Center for Public Affairs and Policy (CPAP) in Alexandria, Va. "The doctoral program has given me a whole different perspective on my work," Wills said.
Jim Wolf, a CPAP professor who has known Wills for more than seven years, said he is most impressed by her curiosity and tenacity. "She stays with something and keeps pushing. She's very adaptable to different situations. She is a very competent scholar and practitioner."
That adaptability has been a must for Wills, who has lived in Mali, Mexico, Nigeria, Niger, Saudi Arabia, and Italy. Among other roles, Wills has served as an acting assistant secretary in the state department's Bureau of African Affairs and as director for the Office of Southern Africa Affairs. "I didn't really choose my career in the usual sense. I didn't know about the Foreign Service until my husband joined in 1979, and I was recruited by one of his colleagues," Wills said.
Wills doesn't worry about culture shock. In fact, one might say she thrives on it. "It is always an adventure to move to a new country. You pack up a lot of what you own and then live without it for some time as it is shipped to you. But there is the compensation of living in a new country that you get to discoverand [you] make new friendships that often last a lifetime."
For Wills, that sense of discovery goes hand in hand with a mission to serve as a bridge between cultures, fostering cross-cultural understanding and anticipating a new adventureand challenge every day.