Andrew T. "Andy" Simkin '83 is U.S. Consul General in Chennai, India. A career foreign service officer, he has previously served in Mexico, the United Arab Emirates, Cuba, Spain and Kuwait. He has also served in various capacities at the State Department in Washington D.C. A history major at Earlham, he earned a law degree at the University of Dayton. His wife Elizabeth "Bess" (Stewart) Simkin '82 and son, Alfred '09 are also Earlham graduates. Earlhamite Editor Jonathan Graham conducted the following interview via e-mail.
You have been kind enough to meet with students participating in Earlham's South Asia program. For those of us who have not been fortunate enough to attend those meetings, what are some things you would like other Earlhamites to know about India?
It is an exciting time to be in India. The country is doing so well in many ways, and leaders in both India and the U.S. are paying close attention to how much the two countries have in common and can accomplish together. The flow of people and ideas between the U.S. and India is stronger than ever. Earlham's program here is an important part of that flow, and I think this 2010 group is going to have a great experience.
Our two years in India thus far have flown by quickly, packed with interesting experiences and interactions. Chennai has been described as a "village of seven million people," which I find apt. There is still a warm, community feeling here, as if it were much smaller. We have felt welcome in Chennai from day one, and have had nonstop opportunities to participate in the cultural and public life of the city.
Beyond Chennai, our Consulate also covers a three-state district with a population of over 150 million. South Indians have a distinctive culture (or cultures - even within this region, each of the three states has its own language and script), with substantial differences from the North. In fact, India as a whole can well be compared to Europe. The degree of cultural diversity from one Indian state to another is comparable to that between nations in Europe.
As you prepare to move on to your next posting, in Pakistan, can you talk a little about some of the challenges facing that country, and how you expect those to effect your work?
In my Foreign Service career, I have generally felt drawn to serve where I felt that I could make a positive difference, and I look forward to the opportunity to do my best in a place that is such a high foreign-policy priority for our country. The Foreign Service assignment process starts a whole year in advance. When the process started this year, I decided to volunteer to go to Islamabad, and I was selected very quickly! My assignment there is to commence in August 2011. Until then, I expect to remain fully focused on my current job here in India.
In what ways did your Earlham education prepare you for your career in the Foreign Service?
So many! First of all, at Earlham I absorbed a sense of service, and of justice, that has motivated me throughout my career, and has helped me to focus on what is most important. As a consular officer, I have made thousands of decisions that significantly affected people's lives, and I have always strived to do so in a discerning and humane way, taking account of the dignity and worth of each individual even when dealing with high volumes of work. Earlham's emphasis on cross-cultural understanding prepared me well.
I would also note that in the Foreign Service, we do a lot of writing. I attribute much of my professional success to my strengths developed at Earlham in critical thinking, writing and editing. One other core skill in the Foreign Service is to be a quick learner. We are hired as generalists, with no specific expertise required, and we are expected to adapt quickly to a new job, in a new place, every two or three years. A broad-based liberal arts education is in my opinion the best background for this kind of work.
What advice would you offer students who are contemplating a similar career?
I would encourage it. Among other rewards, I have appreciated the way that my career has kept me learning constantly. I remember the words of one Earlham Commencement Speaker, British Lord Caradon, who had been a statesman in the service of his country. Having been informed that many Earlham students were interested in international studies and travel, he said, and repeated: "Go if you possibly can. You'll never be the same." That phrase stuck with me vividly.
One other piece of advice would be on languages. I studied Spanish in high school, and enjoyed a year of Latin at Earlham. I had 20 weeks of full-time instruction with the State Department in Spanish, and have developed my proficiency further in several assignments to Spanish-speaking countries. Many of my colleagues, though, have learned multiple foreign languages. I would encourage students to do coursework in more than one foreign language, if they are considering a career in international relations.
One other thing I might add about government service: Many Earlhamites share deep concerns for social justice, world peace, and similar lofty goals. But it can be very hard to identify suitable work that is well calculated to achieve practical progress toward those goals. My experience has been that government service can put one in a position to make a real difference.
You attended Earlham's Jerusalem program. What are your most vivid memories of that experience?
Tony and June Bing were our leaders, and they did an amazing job. They somehow got access to all the key places, people, and experiences to enable us to consider the Arab-Israeli conflict in all its emotional complexity. It was a sobering experience. I repeatedly found myself agreeing with both sides at once, even when their views were completely irreconcilable. I remember when we spent an afternoon at the site, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. The sunlight and the air seemed to have a special quality that day, as I wandered around and thought of the significance of that religious message. Then as we boarded our bus, we learned of the tragic news of massacres in Lebanon, a very short distance north of where we were. This was in late 1982.
Can you share a favorite memory from your Earlham student days?
My student days at Earlham were incredibly rich. I read and thought and discussed so much, and was involved in so many activities. I remember going to various favorite study hideaways, in empty classrooms and other niche spots around the campus. Bess and I used to enjoy walks in the back campus woods, and cross-country skiing when it snowed. I am still nostalgic for the opportunity to spend entire days just learning. But I also remember the pressure of finishing papers late at night, on my electric typewriter - no word processing then!
I know you have family ties to the College, but how did you happen to choose Earlham?
Both my grandparents on my father's side graduated from Earlham, as have several other Simkins. I grew up in Seattle, and went east for a visit to Earlham and to several other campuses, with no expectation of what the outcome might be. I had a great experience visiting Earlham - unlike any other place - and resolved that it would be my first choice. I see the college as a marvelous treasure, and feel incredibly lucky to have gone there.
What's your idea of a great day off?
I love to have a quiet day at home, reading, listening to music, and/or doing things outdoors. I find great satisfaction in taking on household repairs and other manual projects. My first advisor at Earlham was Jackson Bailey, who used to heat his home with wood; I remember him talking about the satisfaction of splitting his own firewood. I did the same at our home in Arlington during our six-year Washington stint prior to coming to Chennai. Chennai is too hot for that though.
- Jonathan Graham
Earlhamite and Publications Editor
Thanks to Director of International Programs Patty Lamson for her help with this article.
(Posted September 9, 2010)