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WM: Five Miles to the Middle East

Even though he grew up 10 minutes from the Wabash campus, the only real connection Jacob Surface ’11 had to the College was the people around him.

“All the positive male role models I had were coaches, teachers, and lawyers in town who were graduates of Wabash,” Surface says. “Jake Gilbert ’98, who was the head football coach at North Montgomery at the time, encouraged me to develop my own character and educational plans. He pushed me to look at Wabash.” 

Once on campus, Surface caught the bug for international travel and work.

During his first semester, Surface was invited by Professor Philip Mikesell ’63 to join a class that went to Israel to study geopolitical and economic development.  The following year he joined a history class of juniors and seniors taught by Professor Michelle Rhodes which included an immersion trip to France.

“A lot of people invested their time in me, recognizing I had potential. That mentorship taught me there’s more to life than doctors, lawyers, and businessmen.”

By his senior year, Surface had decided on a career as a political science professor.

“I got 12 rejections from Ph.D. programs,” Surface says. “I was frustrated and upset. I googled fellowships in foreign affairs, something where I could merge my political science background, my language interests, and international travel. It just so happened that was the official name of the Pickering Fellowship.”

Surface was awarded the fellowship, which covered his two-year master’s studies at Indiana University and guaranteed him a spot in the United States Foreign Service, our diplomatic corps carrying out U.S. foreign policy at embassies overseas and the Department of State headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“The first summer I interned at the Egypt desk in Washington, D.C., and then the following summer I was at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt,” Surface says. “I finished my public affairs degree by September 2013 and was in Washington and full-time training to join the Foreign Service as a commissioned officer.”

His first assignment was in Papua New Guinea.

“It is one of the more remote, dangerous, and isolated places on Earth, though it is just north of Australia, but I chose that because it was going to be really hard,” Surface says. “I was the sole political officer, and backup for economic affairs, consular work—pretty much everything. I joke that one day I wrote a cable and fixed a toilet on the same day.”

From that location he covered Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and the Autonomous Region of Bougainville.

“I got a lot of experience at very high-level diplomacy and negotiations—high speed, high stakes, high stress, very intense,” Surface says. “You are at the center of the action working in small embassies or on special envoy missions. You immediately get engaged and involved and develop a lot of skills because of it. I sat with the ambassador and the other officers at the embassy every week and did my best to inform impactful policy decisions about Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu. Most people in my career do not have that opportunity until they’ve been in 10, 15, or 20 years.”

Surface took that experience to other tours in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Kabul, Afghanistan; and Baghdad, Iraq. Now, Surface is back in Cairo, Egypt, alongside his wife, Lana, where she is completing her first tour as a foreign service officer. He led the embassy preparations for the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27), hosted in Egypt last November—the largest multilateral event in Egypt’s history.

“There was only one available job for me, addressing climate change as the environment, science, technology, and health officer. I love science and technology, but it’s not my strong suit. I went from working on conflict and peace processes, then to democracy and elections, and now to climate change in the course of about five years,” he says.

Surface recognizes it was the love of lifelong learning instilled in him at Wabash that has been critical to what he is able to do now.

“I left Baghdad on August 28, 2022, transited through Amman, Jordan, and four hours later was in Cairo planning this climate change conference. I could not skip a beat,” he continues. “From logistical preparations to policy efforts, I had to get completely spun up on an entirely different skill set, stuff I’d never imagined I would be doing professionally.”

After a visit to campus during a quick return to the U.S., Surface reflects on how campus has changed and how it has stayed the same.

“The student-focused mission of this place is still there—the beating heart of what drives it forward,” he says. “The College is still producing fantastic students. I like to engage with them each year because it reminds me of how much energy, drive, and intellect is right here at Wabash.

“We didn’t have the PPE (philosophy, politics, and economics) major, or Wabash Democracy and Public Discourse (WDPD),” Surface continues. “(Fellowship Advisor) Susan Albrecht is now a great resource for helping students find and apply for fellowships. I met a student speaking Japanese at a level that most of my fellow diplomats aspire to. Getting more languages and introducing international opportunities on campus has really been a positive for the College.

“There are more offerings than ever before. And the students are just as ferociously hungry for it. That’s really encouraging and that’s what keeps bringing me back to campus.”

Source: Wa Bash