An Ambassador Comes Home
“At Central I learned to dissect languages, to learn about the culture from the language. So I never experienced culture shock. It was all an adventure.”
– Bernadette M. Allen ’78
Major: French Civilization and Linguistics
Student Activities: Alpha Delta Epsilon; President, Central College African-American Organization; DJ, KCUI
Career: U.S. Ambassador, U.S. Department of State with assignments in Asia, Africa and the Americas; Member, Foreign Service Grievance Board since 2013
Location: Fort Washington, Maryland
Special Accomplishments: French language certificate (1976), Sorbonne University, Paris; Master of Arts (1990), George Washington University, Washington, D.C.; Alumni Achievement Award (2008), Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters and 2013 commencement speaker, Central College
Service: Board of Trustees, Central College; Missionary, usher and Christian education teacher, Carmody Hills Baptist Church, Seat Pleasant, Maryland
Central College’s study abroad program attracted Bernadette Allen ’78 to the college.
“I learned I could study in Paris or Madrid! I was thrilled,” says the retired U.S. ambassador and Central trustee. Allen, who grew up in Maryland, had never been anywhere near Iowa.
Her mother drove her to Pella. “Neither of us knew what to expect,” Allen says. Her mother said, “If it doesn’t look right, I’m taking you right back home to the University of Maryland.”
“But the campus and town were so beautiful and I was so excited to be here,” Allen says.
Attending Central in the 1970s was a cultural education that helped prepare her for her eventual career, Allen says. “We had students from both coasts, the Virgin Islands, Japan and quite a number from countries in Africa and Latin America,” she recalls. “There was an international student organization and the campus was a culturally diverse place.”
Allen helped make it more so. “I was the president of Central’s African-American Organization. We put on black history programs and engaged in various ways with other students on campus. I guess that was the start of my interest in being a cultural ambassador,” she says.
“In the dining hall my freshman year, some African-American students questioned, ‘Why do we mostly hear Billy Joel and John Denver on KCUI, the campus radio station? Why can’t we hear Stevie Wonder or R&B artists too?’” she continues. “The radio station manager said, ‘Well, we don’t have those records.’ Our response was, ‘We’ll bring our own!’ So, we studied for and earned Class C radio licenses and we each got our own show. My radio name was ‘Bad Bern,’” she laughs. “Every week I played R&B for three hours.”
Allen’s study abroad experience, a full academic year in Paris, sealed the deal. On return to campus, she became a French language assistant and continued to study French, linguistics and education.
“I planned to teach English as a second language to refugees and immigrants,” she says. Instead, after graduation she followed the advice of her French language advisor and applied for a teacher exchange program that placed her in Marseilles. There she met diplomats in the U.S. Foreign Service. They informed her that President Jimmy Carter was looking to make the foreign service more representative of the diverse face of America, and she took the foreign service exam.
Her French and linguistics background proved invaluable during her 30-year diplomatic career. As U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Niger (2006-2010), she served in the administrations of President George W. Bush and President Barack H. Obama. Over the course of her career (1980-2010), she served under 11 Secretaries of State—spending half her time in Washington, D.C., and half her time on overseas assignments.
She remained in touch with her professors after graduation, and they’d ask her to return to talk to political science and French classes about careers. Her appointment to Central’s board of trustees in 2013 is the latest stage of her involvement with the college, which also includes support to the Journey Scholarship.
“I also support the Forever Dutch initiative, and occasionally study abroad initiatives,” Allen says. “I do that because I had a very nice financial aid package when I was a student. My mother was a single parent, I was a long way from home, and Central took care of me. I love to be able to give back.”