Mark Jacobs (Paraguay) gives keynote address at Virginia Lessons From Abroad Conference Longwood University


The Lessons From Abroad (LFA) organization seeks to help students make sense of their education abroad experience after they have returned home. LFA offers programming, resources, and research that establishes a community of learners who successfully integrate their international experience in all facets of their academic, personal, and professional lives. LFA also provides practitioners in the field of higher education opportunities for collaboration, research and professional development. They asked Mark Jacobs  (Paraguay 1978-80) to speak to their students returning from overseas. What follows is Mark being introduced by the Director of the college’s Study Abroad program and  what Mark had to tell the students of Longwood University of Virginia. — JCoyne

Longwood University of Virginia


Introduction by Emily Kane, Ph.D. Director of Study Abroad program at Longwood University

It’s my great pleasure to introduce you all to Mark Jacobs, our keynote speaker today. Jacobs is the author of five books and over 120 short stories, which have appeared in publications including the Atlantic, The Iowa Review, New Letters, The American Literary Review, and The Kenyon Review. Pulitzer Prize Winner Robert Olen Butler calls Jacobs “one of the most exciting new writers I’ve read in years…. a writer who I think will become our own Graham Greene.” In 2017, Jacobs’s short stories “Other Men’s Fields,” “Stockpiling Twinkies,” and “Ducks” were all nominated for Pushcart Prizes. His own story begins in Niagara Falls, New York, where he was born. It’s a fitting, roaring location at national borders, one well-suited to a man who has explored and served around the world. He followed his undergraduate years at Alma College in Michigan with a Master’s in International Administration at the School for International Training in Vermont, and earned a Ph.D. in English from Drew University. He has spent 15 years of his life living and working outside the United States either on assignment for the Peace Corps, through which he was a volunteer in a remote village in Paraguay, or as a Foreign Service Officer serving in Turkey, Paraguay, Bolivia, Honduras, and Spain. He currently resides on 32 acres in Pamplin, Virginia, where he writes full time, having retired from the Foreign Service.

His rich, evocative writing draws from his experiences abroad profoundly. He even approaches reading and writing geographically, talking in a blog post about how poems can inspire prose writers, noticing poetry’s “startling juxtapositions” and the pleasure of finding “the adjective fixed to a noun in whose neighborhood you never dreamed of coming across it.” He has noted the usefulness of “cultural dislocations,” a feeling to which you all no doubt can relate having studied abroad in cities and towns around the globe. He wrote that such experiences in Paraguay “unsettled my sense of identity,” and led him to a lifelong passion for “imagining other lives, distinct realities, experience foreign to one’s own.” He seeks to build connections through the written word, admitting to being obsessed by “the grinding at the edges where culture intersect.” Mark Jacobs the writer also is a perceptive reader not only of other prose, of poetry, but of people, of places, of their power to affect each other. On living outside his home culture for 15 years, Jacobs asserts that he “was not reinvented;” rather, “I was dislocated. I was challenged and provoked. I was sometimes humbled and frequently surprised. I wasn’t reinvented, but I think it’s fair to say I was enlarged.” I imagine many of us in this room can think immediately of the ways our own international experience have enlarged us.

Thank you, Mark Jacobs, for taking time away from your writing to be part of the 2018 Virginia Lessons from Abroad Conference.

Constructive Engagement:
Building The House We Want To Live In

Keynote Address by Mark Jacobs (Paraguay 1978-80)
Presented at the Virginia Lessons From Abroad Conference
Longwood University
February 3, 2018

Longwood University


In 1986, President Ronald Reagan named Edward Perkins the first African-American ambassador to South Africa. In his autobiography, Perkins writes that before submitting his nomination to the Senate, Reagan invited him to the White House. He wanted to check out the man he was about to send into one of the most fraught diplomatic situations of the Cold War era. He asked Perkins if he thought he could handle it. By ‘it’ he meant the intense pressure of being a black American ambassador in a country both dominated and riven by apartheid. Perkins said yes, of course. And handle it he did.

At his Senate confirmation hearing, Perkins told the lawmakers assembled to quiz him that he would no longer use the term ‘constructive engagement’ to describe U.S. policy toward South Africa. The Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Chester Crocker, had coined the phrase during Reagan’s first term. The Reagan Administration foreign policy team thought that Jimmy Carter had achieved little by confronting the South Africa government publicly on the subject of apartheid. They believed that quiet engagement behind the scenes would be more effective in promoting change.

In its day, constructive engagement was controversial. Critics of the policy – including professors in universities that were divesting themselves of investments in companies doing business with South Africa – charged that the Reagan approach took much needed pressure off the South African government. Supporters, on the other hand, claimed that they achieved more by working quietly and close up than would have been the case with strident denunciations.

The term has faded, identified as it was with a specific policy, a specific historical context, a specific administration. It’s an asterisk in the story of American diplomacy. But the phrase has always resonated with me, and I would like to resuscitate it. I want to put it to another use. I think that making that sort of change is okay. Second acts are different by definition from first acts. So let’s broaden the term’s application, and see where it takes us. Implicit in the word ‘constructive’ is the notion that something is being built. Imagine that to be a house. The trick, the art and craft, the goal, is to make it a house we would all like to live in.

By the way, if this is a construction project, you are already involved. When you joined an exchange program, you picked up your hammer.

As for me, I started young, and I started dumb. When I was twenty, I hitchhiked through Europe with an ugly orange backpack from K-Mart and very little money. I spoke no foreign language. My sense of European history was precarious at best. The same went for my sense of geography, and pretty much everything else a well prepared traveler needs. Except curiosity. I did have plenty of that, and the experience opened a door for me that I keep going through, these many years later.

As a backpacker in Europe I was only minimally engaged. I watched, I saw, I took notes in a blue stenographer’s notebook. Engagement came later, in Paraguay. My first evening in Asunción as a Peace Corps trainee I stood on the rooftop balcony of the hotel where Peace Corps was putting us up. I stared out at a neighborhood of people going about their business, their pleasure, their life of every day on the margins not just of the city but of Paraguayan society.

For me, the Chacarita neighborhood along the Paraguay River was a vision. Here’s what I saw: a man lying on his back on a mattress on the roof of a house of one room. Chickens foraging in patchy grass. Barefoot kids playing soccer in the dust with a ball that needed air. A young woman bending over to fill a bucket at a community water pump, her long dark hair swinging forward. The vision showed me how little I had been able to imagine the world, how thick and rich it was, how densely knotted with things unknown, some of them knowable and others almost certainly not.

I was eager to get involved. I spent two years in a remote village in the south of the country working with local parents to build a school that met ministry of education design requirements. It was in many ways a bruising experience. It humbled me. All the good will, the good intentions I brought with me counted for little. I knew next to nothing about the place or the people who lived there. I made mistakes. Some of them I made more than once. The school project was going nowhere. Month after month, it continued not to be built.

Finally, after far too long a period of stagnation, an older man took me aside. He told me, Marcos, the way you’re going about this, what we all want to happen is not going to happen. You’re hanging back, you’re waiting to see how the parents want to proceed. You are deferring too much. Meantime people are waiting for you to take the lead. You need to wade into this. You need to make the first moves, and tell them what you want.

He was right. I took his advice. After that, I won’t say it was simple, but it worked. It definitely worked. Once the parents and I engaged with each other, the school was quickly and efficiently constructed. I visited the village and the school just a few years ago, and it still stands. It is part of the network of rural schools under supervision of the ministry of education, and it looks just like the rest of them.

Later, I joined the foreign service. I chose the branch of the service associated with what is generically known as public diplomacy. Public diplomacy seeks to advance the national interest by engaging with foreign publics. Which foreign publics we ought to engage has been a matter of debate through the years. Decades ago, the focus was on elite audiences: the opinion-shapers, the political and intellectual and artistic leaders whose work influenced their society and, by extension, their societies’ attitudes toward the United States. More recently, in the years following the September 11th attacks in 2001, the State Department has sought to connect with different audiences, including young people, marginalized people, Muslims, and women.

But whomever we engage with abroad, the work not just of public diplomacy but of diplomacy more generally rests on a bedrock supposition: America should be involved in the world. Jefferson’s phrase in the Declaration of Independence has not yet been bettered. Why do we do this work? We do it because we ought to pay “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” That’s a two-way street. Americans working abroad listen, learn, and seek to understand. At the same time, they represent American values. In the case of our diplomats, they articulate and advocate for American policies.

Through the Cold War, the national commitment to public diplomacy was largely unquestioned. Congresses and administrations jousted over how we went about engaging – essentially it was a debate about which programs worked best, how to get a good return on our diplomatic investment, and how to measure the work – but nobody in a position of authority seriously proposed doing away with the apparatus of engagement we had built up.

Once the Berlin Wall fell, though, that consensus went up in smoke. Some of you may know there was speculation at the time about what was dubbed “the end of history.” This notion involved a presumption, now magnificently blown up, that, with the end of communism, the future would see the gradual extension of the Western democratic model, its practices and values, across the globe. There was talk, too, of a so-called ‘peace dividend.’ We won the Cold War, the thinking went. In doing so, we spent a lot of money. The time had come to stop spending.

I was in Izmir, Turkey, as this debate was going on in the U.S. My office was located in a building owned by the Turkish-American Association. The Izmir TAA was like other binational associations around the world. They existed, often but not always with serious financial support from the U.S. government, to promote bilateral ties at a person-to-person level. Those of us who did the work believed we were honoring Jefferson’s admonition to pay that “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” That respect included explaining, listening, but also advocating. In Senator Fulbright’s memorable phrase, we were engaged in an enterprise of “mutual understanding.”

The Turkish American Association included a library. Part of my job was to supervise the library staff. In the debate over the so-called peace dividend, I remember members of Congress standing on the floor of the House thundering against libraries like the Izmir TAA’s that U.S. tax dollars paid for. At a time when public libraries in these congresspersons’ districts were being closed because of declining revenues or increased costs, it was unconscionable for the U.S. government to fund libraries for foreigners.

I was young enough, junior enough, unseasoned enough that I expected somebody to step forward and make the obvious case why such libraries, and the binational centers that housed them, existed. Surely, I thought, some senior figure in the foreign policy establishment, somebody with credibility, will stand up and explain the rationale behind the work of the libraries. Are you surprised that nobody did?

Absent such political support, and a compelling rationale, public diplomacy budgets eroded. America was cashing in its peace dividend. At that time, a separate federal agency – the United States Information Agency, or USIA – was mandated to carry out the work. But as the intellectual and political environment changed, USIA bent with the prevailing winds. In Madrid, I organized a conference of American and Spanish book publishers and editors, timing it so that the American invitees could attend in conjunction with the annual Frankfurt book fair. It seemed to me that the get-together, which included heavy hitters from the book industry in both countries, was bona fide cultural diplomacy. And in Spain, at least, no one had done it before. But in making our case to agency headquarters in Washington, we pitched the conference as likely to confer economic benefits on American companies. The word ‘culture’ did not rear its suspect head.

As some of you may know, USIA was disbanded in 1999, and public diplomacy operations were moved to the Department of State. When that happened, one of my mentors, a USIA officer, worked hard to illustrate the value of the work to State Department colleagues who were less familiar with it. In so doing, John Dwyer came up with a superb formulation that is still relevant today. Public diplomacy, he said, provides the context for American foreign policy.

Eighteen or nineteen years after the transition, most observers consider the change of venue a mixed success. Certainly, public diplomacy programs and activities have been brought closer to policy and policy-making under the State Department’s roof. And the flagship exchanges – Fulbright, and the International Visitor Leadership Program – retain their traditional importance. But changes in how Americans interact with people and societies around the world have meant that the role of non-governmental exchanges has exploded. Technology and cheap travel combine to enable Americans to represent their country on their own, without support or intervention, much more easily than was once the case.

Everyone here today knows the importance of engagement with the world. You feel it in your bones because you’ve done it. And you will go on doing it. You will stand up against the winds of isolationism and xenophobia and rancorous nationalism that are currently blowing across the country with such force. And as you resist those cold winds, you will be building the house I mentioned earlier. You will ensure that it’s a house in the inhabiting of which we all take pleasure. It will be a house where we all feel comfortable and at home. It will be a house with plenty of room for visitors.

That leaves, to my mind, only the question of how you will go about continuing the agreeable labor of constructive engagement you’ve begun. After the Peace Corps, I went to graduate school. I wound up writing a dissertation on the novelist Thomas Hardy. I read all of the many novels he wrote, and it seemed to me that Hardy did something new in English literature. He created rural, working-class characters without looking down on them. Before Hardy, English novelists included working-class characters in their work, of course, both rural and urban. But those writers seemed to me to be looking down on their own characters from a high authorial perch, talking over the characters’ heads to their middle-class readers.

Hardy was different. He looked at his characters and took them straight on. He saw their dignity, their humanity, their incalculable worth. He conferred on his characters a kind of existential dignity. And that seems to me to be a good jumping off point for thinking about how we engage with people around the world. This has nothing to do with the flaccid idea behind the slogan that “people are the same everywhere.” The Hardy approach is more radical than that. It is, in fact, revolutionary. It asks that you become a visionary, someone who can truly see the glow that lights the woman or the man standing across from you. It has to do, finally, with respect.

Building the house we want to build calls for certain skills. I won’t push the analogy too far and talk about the tools we need. But I will say that we cannot build it without imagination. This is something that Peace Corps volunteers know, or figure out the hard way. Before she or he can accomplish anything, a volunteer has to imagine the life around him. What is it like to subsist on a diet of peanuts and manioc for days or weeks at a time, as people did in Potrero Yapepó, the village where I worked? How does the lack of protein affect your cognition? What is it like to be the mother of a young man who has just had an accident with his motorcycle and must give up his cherished machine or face legal consequences? The son is in despair. The mother is strong and sensible. The volunteer pays attention.

There is no end to questions like these. What is it like to wake before dawn on a summer day to make breakfast before going with your family to pick cotton by hand under a sun that has no mercy? What is it like to strap that burlap bag around your waist and feel it getting progressively heavier as you fill it with cotton bolls, dragging it around the field like a second belly? What is it like to live in a place where the road closes when it rains, to believe that spirits have made your daughter sick, and to venture out on a highway of mud in the hope of finding a healer who can cast out those evil spirits and bring your daughter back to health?

Enough. In the course of the exchanges you have been involved in, you have already asked yourselves a hundred similar questions of your own. It is my hope that, as the years go by, you will ask yourself another hundred. As you do, you will see the house rise in front of you. Brick by brick, plank by plank, room by room.

I’m no weather man, but I have a hunch those cold winds I mentioned – the nativism and xenophobia, our twenty-first-century version of Know Nothingism – are going to keep blowing for a while. In that kind of hard weather, the idea of a house begins to sound better and better. One day, if we’re lucky, we’ll be able to put on a roof.

Thank you.

Mark Jacobs

A former U.S. foreign service officer, Mark Jacobs (Paraguay 1978-80) has published 127 stories in magazines including The Atlantic, Playboy, The Baffler, The Kenyon Review, and The Hudson Review. His story “How Birds Communicate” won The Iowa Review fiction prize. His story “Dream State” won the Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Kafka Prize. His five books include A Handful of Kings, published by Simon and Shuster, and Stone Cowboy, by Soho Press, which won the Peace Corps Writers Maria Thomas Award. His website can be found at

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