Alumna-turned-ambassador reflects on 30-plus-year career as U.S. diplomat

Author: Jamie Oppenheim
April 8, 2024
U.S. Ambassador to Brunei Darussalam Caryn McClelland presents her Letter of Credence to His Majesty the Sultan of Brunei Darussalam.

U.S. Ambassador to Brunei Darussalam Caryn McClelland presents her Letter of Credence to His Majesty the Sultan of Brunei Darussalam.

Caryn R. McClelland was appointed to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Brunei Darussalam in 2021

Caryn R. McClelland spent more than three decades as a diplomat in the United States Foreign Service, a path she’s unknowingly been preparing for since childhood. Her parents’ wanderlust had the family moving every few years to cities in New Jersey, Maine, Michigan and California, eventually ending up in San Francisco. With each move she’d reinvent herself. For some, that might grow tiresome, but the San Francisco State University alumna says she thrived — and developed resilience and adaptability that helped her climb the ranks of the U.S. Foreign Service.

McClelland (M.A., ’90) is now ambassador to the nation of Brunei Darussalam, an absolute monarchy strategically located on the island of Borneo. The U.S. Senate confirmed her appointment in 2021, the culmination of 33 years in the Foreign Service. She was accepted into the program in the early 1990s while earning a graduate degree in International Relations from San Francisco State. (She earned her B.A. in English from the University of California, Los Angeles and later earned an M.S. in National Security Strategy from the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.) Since joining the Foreign Service, she’s had posts in Vietnam, Latvia, Indonesia, Azerbaijan, Malaysia, Turkmenistan and other nations.

McClelland learned about the Foreign Service at the recommendation of a family friend who thought she’d be a good fit. At the time, McClelland had just graduated from UCLA and was deciding what to do next with her life. “I thought this was a great opportunity and a way to represent my country, but also experience life overseas,” she said. She was sold. She began studying International Relations at SF State soon afterward, building a solid foundation for the work she’d be doing abroad, and passed the Foreign Service exam shortly before earning her degree.

It wasn’t just the travel that appealed to her. “I took an aptitude test once, and it concluded that I needed to either cure world hunger — like do a big global thing — or I needed to find a job that changed frequently,” she said. The mission of a U.S. Foreign Service officer is promoting peace and prosperity and protecting American citizens abroad while advancing the interests of the United States. It’s work that deals with important global issues and changes constantly — the perfect career for McClelland.

Looking back on her decades-long career, she believes she’s made differences large and small. “There are things that we do every day as diplomats that have a long-term impact on individual lives and countries. In Vietnam it was dioxin remediation at Agent Orange sites,” she said. “There’s an organization in the military, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, that identifies missing service members, so it’s repatriating remains and reuniting them with loved ones who never thought they would see their family member again.”

Mclelland takes a selfie with students

Ambassador McClelland posed for a selfie as she bids farewell to the 2023 Yong Southeast Asian Leadership Professional Fellows following their pre-departure orientation at the U.S. Embassy in Brunei.

And then there are major multinational projects, such as getting a pipeline built to transport oil and gas from former Soviet nations to international markets. She authored a pipeline strategy in 1995. The main pipeline project, which required the coordination of many agencies within the U.S. government, international lenders and commercial entities, took about 10 years to complete. “It required bringing everybody together,” she said. “But when the tap on that pipeline opened, it changed the trajectory of those countries that it went through.”

The work is rewarding but also challenging, something she relishes, she says. One of the most important lessons she’s learned is that “no” is not the end of the conversation, it’s just the beginning.

“Everybody is different and every scenario is different, but I think the commonality is a certain persistence to always look at new ways to achieve an end,” she said. “The people who are most effective in this job are the ones who are constantly willing to reinvent themselves and reinvent the way they think about things to get to ‘yes.’… It’s always constantly adapting and refocusing and reprioritizing and being willing to look for avenues that you didn’t originally see, which requires you to learn so much from other people.”

For students considering a career in the Foreign Service she recommends looking at all the different ways to join. There’s the Foreign Service exam — the route she took — but there are also fellowships and internships. Students can visit Department of State Careers to view options. There are also other employment opportunities at other federal agencies, such as the Department of Commerce, that have career opportunities abroad, she adds.

The Foreign Service is not for everyone, she acknowledges. To start, it’s an “up or out” organization, like the military. Officers either get promoted or they must leave. But the most common reason people leave is that moving around every few years can be taxing, especially on families. She has a daughter, so she knows the difficulties.

For McClelland, the benefits far outweigh the downsides. “When I joined the foreign service, my goal was not to become an ambassador. My goal was to have a rewarding career filled with wonderful experiences, meeting new people and constantly reinventing myself,” she said. “It was, ‘How could I do good but also constantly challenge myself?’”

After more than 30 years with the same organization, it’s safe to say she found her answer.

In 1946, SF State became the first university in the U.S. to establish a Department of International Relations. Learn about studying International Relations at SF State today.