International studies alumna returns from career abroad to a changed America

Lisa Vickers and President Obama

Lisa Vickers '86 and President Barack Obama

When Foreign Service officers return from overseas posts, they often undergo a phenomenon called “reverse culture shock,” a period when they have to get to know their home country again. 

For U.S. Department of State employee Lisa Vickers, that happened last August when she returned from Cairo, Egypt during the height of the presidential election campaign. In some ways, she did not recognize America.

“To see some of the very divisive rhetoric—I know that that is not my country,” she said. 

Vickers graduated from University of the Pacific in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in international studies. She entered the Foreign Service and has spent nearly her entire career overseas, with stints in Mexico City; Edinburgh; Helsinki; Warsaw; Kyiv; Lilongwe, Malawi and Cairo.

While the divisiveness she found upon her return saddened her, it did not diminish her love of country or her desire to participate. Not only did she vote—in-person for the first time in three decades—but she signed up to be a poll worker. She stood vigil outside the Supreme Court when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in September. And she plans to attend President-elect Biden’s inauguration in January.

“Being home right now is exactly the right place for me because it's renewing to me once again why I have done the work that I've done for the last 30 years,” she said. 

Vickers returned to the United States to become Director of the Department of State’s Global Talent Management's Office of Performance Evaluation. She holds the rank of Minister Counselor, which is equivalent to a two star general.

She has helped American citizens abroad, issuing visas, registering children born to Americans and generally making sure Americans abroad were safe. She has also aided Americans in times of crisis, helping masses of them return to the United States after hurricanes, political unrest or COVID-19.

“We helped about 7,000 Americans depart Egypt on a variety of different flights,” she said. “Obviously I don't do this myself. I had a fantastic team of officers under my purview and some very creative and innovative officers who came up with a couple of different policies that were ultimately adopted worldwide.” 

Vickers says Pacific opened her eyes to the wider world. She believes the broad scope of interests she could indulge and the variety of people she encountered at the university represent the best of both worlds—Pacific is both big enough to help develop a world view and intimate enough to foster relationships.

“There are so many opportunities that exist. There are so many different schools within the university,” she said. “And you can take classes across the board because it's not huge, you know? It's not 45,000 students. You could take advantage of all of that. You can get to know people from literally every corner of the world. And that's what makes UOP so special.” 

It was at Pacific where Vickers first became interested in international affairs. A political science professor suggested she major in international studies and recommended a study abroad program in Durham, England. Her encounters with consulate staff inspired her to pursue a career in the Foreign Service.

She had her first encounter with reverse culture shock when she returned from England and discovered life in California hadn’t stood still while she was away. Even buying ice cream at Dairy Queen was a challenge, but Pacific helped her through it with its re-entry seminar. It’s a lesson she’s kept with her. 

“I just was unpacking my belongings a couple weeks ago as we moved into our house in D.C. and I found my textbook from the re-entry seminar that I took 35 years ago. I still have it.”