“Part firefighter, part diplomat”: Thorodd Ommundsen (MSFS’10) uses skills from Georgetown to tackle challenges in South Sudan

December 5, 2016 by Margaux Fontaine
thorodd ommundsen

Photo/Dag Folkestad

Thorodd Ommundsen (MSFS’10) considers himself a “citizen of the world.”

He was born in France to a Norwegian father and American mother. During his childhood, he spent eight years in rural communities in the Republic of the Congo, and attended high school in Norway. He attended Swedish, Norwegian, French and American schools and universities.

“So, I am a Norwegian citizen and I hold a Norwegian passport, but culturally I feel like a citizen of the world and I take as much pride in my United Nations passport as my Norwegian one,” Ommundsen says.

Ommundsen currently lives in Juba, the capital city of South Sudan. Working in the youngest country in the world, he is a Special Assistant to the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in South Sudan, and the Head of the UN peacekeeping Mission in the country. Known as UNMISS, the Mission is comprised of 12,000 peacekeeping troops, 1,500 UN police officers, and hundreds of civilian staff.

“It is mandated to protect civilians, support the peace process, monitor and report on the human rights situation, and support the delivery of humanitarian assistance,” Ommundson explains. “Currently, more than four million people, a third of South Sudan’s population have received life-saving assistance from the UN and humanitarian agencies.”

Working in a “fast-paced and dynamic” environment, Ommundsen’s role involves preparing briefing and decision memos, speeches and statements for the Mission leadership, as well as coordinating with Mission components and the UN agencies on the ground.

“I work in a complex peacekeeping context in which every day you are faced with complicated political and operational problems  and constant ‘fires’ that you must put out, together with colleagues from all over the world,” Ommundsen says. “Simply put, my job is part firefighter and part diplomat.”

Children in an UNMISS protection of civilians site in South Sudan. The UN protects 200,000 internally displaced people following three years of conflict. Photo/Thorodd Ommundsen

Children in an UNMISS protection of civilians site in South Sudan. The UN protects 200,000 internally displaced people following three years of conflict. Photo/Thorodd Ommundsen

Formative Experience

The inspiration towards his current career path began to take shape shortly after high school. He spent a gap-year volunteering with the Presbyterian Church in Rwanda. Arriving seven years after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, he worked with the church’s youth program focused on reconciliation between communities. He did not yet have a degree or any special experience, but his Rwandan colleagues welcomed him “as one of their own.”

“I believe the reason for this was that I did not travel to Rwanda with the aim to transfer technical skills, or serve as an ‘expert’ of sorts, but rather, I was there to listen, learn, and contribute as much as possible,” he says. “This experience taught me a great deal about the importance of respecting the contexts in which we work, and identifying people’s needs and demands, rather than supplying fixed solutions from abroad.”

Ommundsen went on to complete his undergraduate degree at the University of Oslo, where he studied political science and economics. He also did an Erasmus exchange program at Sciences Po in Paris.

Looking to further his internationally-focused education, he turned to the MSFS program.

“I was attracted to SFS because of it emphasis on combining academic rigor with practical approaches to learning through seminar classes, workshops, clinics and internships,” Ommundsen says. “I was also impressed by the alumni network, which I believe is one of the talented and cohesive of any academic institution.”

Life on the Hilltop

Discussing his time at Georgetown, Ommundsen identifies a few elements that stood out about his experience, from Georgetown’s D.C. location to GUGS burgers.

“[Georgetown’s] location in Washington D.C. and its deep network with public, private and civil society institutions [allows] world-renowned professors and practitioners to teach at the school and enables students to undertake amazing internships,” he says.

Thorodd Ommundsen graduated from MSFS in 2010. Photo/Geir Ommundsen

Thorodd Ommundsen graduated from MSFS in 2010. Photo/Geir Ommundsen

Additionally, he cites the diversity of the students in MSFS, who bring a wide range of backgrounds and experiences to the program. This, combined with the seminar format of his classes, encouraged “discussion and dialogue” the exchange of ideas.

He recalls “being inspired and challenged by amazing peers and faculty from all over the world, with unique experiences from a range of sectors and backgrounds.”

GUGS (the Georgetown University Grilling Society) also merited a shout-out; he fondly remembers the “amazing inch-thick burgers prepared on the grill on the lawn in front of Copley Hall every Friday.”

On a personal note, Ommundsen also met his wife Kelly at Georgetown.

“I can assure you that marrying a fellow Hoya is the biggest return I have experienced on my decision to invest in a master’s degree from Georgetown!” he says.

One professor who had a significant impact on Ommundsen’s time at Georgetown was Professor Michael Morfit. He explains how Morfit always sought to empower his students to “know what to do when you don’t know what to do.”

“Since I graduated, I have faced numerous challenges in my career that at times, have felt difficult and overpowering,” he says. “On those occasions, I have reminded myself of Professor Morfit’s mantra and reverted to the analytical tools and approaches I learned at Georgetown to address the challenges at hand.”

Thorodd Ommundsen (number three from left) attending a meeting between the UN Special Representative Ellen M Loej and the Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs in Juba in October 2016. Photo/Julio Brathwaite

Thorodd Ommundsen (third from left) attending a meeting between the UN Special Representative Ellen M Loej and the Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs in Juba in October 2016. Photo/Julio Brathwaite

Something else that helped prepare him for his current position was his favorite class at Georgetown, “America and Vietnam” taught by Anthony Lake, former National Security Advisor to President Clinton and currently the Executive Director of UNICEF.

“Professor Lake’s reflections around executive decision-making, organizational behavior in vast government bureaucracies, and high-stakes politics were fascinating and extremely informative, especially as I am now working in a large international bureaucracy,” Ommundsen says.

With help from a Georgetown alum, Ommundsen was able to secure an internship in the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Liberia during the summer after his first year of MSFS, which helped set him on on his career path.

After graduating from MSFS in 2010, he initially worked for the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York, where he focused on rule of law and security sector reform in conflict countries. While on this assignment he frequently traveled to countries such as Somalia, Liberia, and Haiti, and coordinated with the African Union and the World Bank. This experience, he says, helped prepare him for his current work in South Sudan.

Ommundsen’s two years in the MSFS had a significant impact, building upon his previous academic and professional experiences and enhancing his skills in international conflict management.

“Most importantly, the friendships I developed with peers from all over the world continue to help me,” he says. “I am constantly in touch with fellow Georgetown alumni to brainstorm possible solutions to difficult problems, learn from their experiences, and discuss career development and life goals.”