by Callie Randall
Georgetown Alumna Uzra Zeya (SFS’89) has had a meaningful path to world impact and success, from her beginnings studying international politics and diplomacy at the SFS to leading the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL). Looking back at what brought her to Georgetown originally, academics weren’t the only motivator. “Intellectual pursuits aside, Georgetown winning the NCAA championship in ’84 and the Brat Pack classic St. Elmo’s Fire also made the 17-year-old me really want to become a Hoya,” Zeya says.
Zeya is a second-generation American who grew up in a bilingual household and became accustomed to hearing about world events, from the 1979 Iranian revolution to the 1984 assassination of Indira Gandhi, around the dinner table. “In high school, I became an avid student of history and how it shaped modern-day global fault lines,” Zeya says. Once at Georgetown, she enrolled in classes that sparked her curiosity to further follow her interests, including her favorite, Modern Foreign Governments with Professor Madeleine Albright. “Her course challenged my assumptions about the tenuous balance between authoritarian and democratic regimes, as well as the tragic descent of many formerly colonized nations towards one party rule,” Zeya says.
During her time at Georgetown, Zeya explored diverse activities that broadened her viewpoint. “My course work and different work study opportunities opened up new perspectives. Working in the Office of International Programs my freshman year inspired me to study abroad my junior year, a life-changing experience that most directly influenced my decision to pursue a Foreign Service career,” Zeya says. She studied abroad in Cairo, Egypt, where she learned Arabic. “Studying Arab history under Judith Tucker sparked a passion for Middle Eastern studies and gender issues that carried over into my diplomatic career, including postings in Syria, Egypt, and Oman,” Zeya says. At Georgetown, Zeya grew more interested in social justice and environmental issues, took part in campus anti-apartheid demonstrations, and interned at Greenpeace.
In her 27 years with the State Department, Zeya advocated for human rights both at home and overseas. Among her proudest accomplishments was serving as Acting Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor where she championed U.S. human rights promotion and civil society worldwide. “I had the opportunity to meet some of the world’s most courageous human rights activists and give voice to their concerns before the United Nations, the U.S. Congress, and the public, including at a press conference in Beijing that was later banned on the Chinese state-run internet,” she says. Zeya and her team launched the Gender Based Violence Initiative, a new public-private partnership (PPP) to combat gender based violence, set up a new global platform to protect journalists under threat, and doubled the resources of the Global Equality Fund, the first PPP to support LGBT equality.
One of Zeya’s most difficult challenges was managing the Accountability Review Board (ARB) that was set up to examine the September 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including her longtime friend, Ambassador Chris Stevens. Zeya observes, “Unlike much of the partisan firestorm that followed the Benghazi tragedy, the ARB’s mission was to draw lessons to prevent a recurrence, not to advance a political agenda.” In the end, the ARB accomplished its difficult mission, interviewing scores of witnesses and analyzing vast amounts of documentation in a compressed time-frame. “While the ARB conclusions came as a surprise to some senior State Department officials unaware of the systemic failures that occurred under their watch, the Department’s decision to accept all 29 ARB recommendations helped prevent a similar lethal attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility,” she says.
Uzra Zeya’s patriotism and pride for her country has always remained central to her motivation. “There is the singular honor of representing your nation abroad, which always possessed a certain magic for me,” Zeya says. “Hearing our national anthem played at memorials to fallen American service members was a sobering yet inspirational reminder of our nation’s unmatched sacrifices advancing liberty throughout the world and our ability to prevail, even when the odds seem overwhelmingly against us.”
Looking back, Zeya remembers her time in the SFS fondly. She says, “[The most valuable thing I gained from the SFS was] an appreciation of the complexity of the world, and how the human spirit, determination, diplomacy, and collective action can coalesce to overcome even the most ingrained injustice.” Offering advice to current students, Zeya says, “Don’t try to chart your path too far in advance, and be open to new experiences and knowledge. When I joined the State Department, I was eager to be assigned immediately to the Middle East so I could put my academic study to use. Instead, I was sent to Kingston and Paris, two experiences that broadened my perspective and gave me lifelong friendships. I never spoke a word of French before joining the State Department, but it’s now my best language and an area of expertise I never expected to gain in SFS days.” Zeya capped off her diplomatic career serving as Charge d’Affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission in France during a tumultuous three-year period marked by three major terror attacks. In 2017, the French government awarded her the Legion of Honor, France’s highest civilian honor, for her lifetime efforts to advance U.S.-French relations.
Zeya followed the things that sparked her curiosity and ran from there. She says, “Georgetown offered me a chance to learn about the world as it is — not just as it was — and how diplomacy can build a more peaceful and just world.”