An Open Letter to Georgetown University

I am privileged to count myself among the graduates (SFS ’84) of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

Georgetown graduates who enter the field of statecraft have traditionally been trained to represent American political and military interests, usually a euphemism for corporate profit and the power it exerts across the globe. I was inspired to pursue a career in the diplomatic corps to embrace the humanitarian mandate found within the venerable institution’s name itself: Service.

Yet during my years at Georgetown, the notion of service was lost. My professors never mentioned it. Distinguished guest lecturers never referred to it. Students never talked about it. The lofty ideal of service was relegated to the teachings espoused by Jesuit priests on campus such as the late Father Richard McSorley, SJ., who extolled the virtue of peace as a diplomatic objective.

Although Georgetown welcomes a substantial number of applicants from privileged means, it also opens its doors to many who, though clearly qualified, have been less fortunate. I was among the latter as an immigrant from Chile in the early 1970s. I was determined to serve even while laboring at a number of jobs to help cover tuition, shouldering a full-time course load and providing financial support to my elderly parents in Los Angeles. My father had been a celebrated film actor and documentary director in the 1940-1950s and had represented Chile as a diplomat throughout Latin America. He reluctantly left his country and brought us to the United States in the wake of economic and political upheavals.

Uprooted from a privileged life in Chile and, as a result, giving up a scholarship to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis in exchange for a decade of menial jobs in California, I experienced, first-hand, the opposite extreme of the socio-economic spectrum.

Once admitted to Georgetown, I set my sights on a post in the U. S. Foreign Service. Because of the turns my life had taken, I yearned to help lift Latin America out of a historical malaise, without compromising its dignity, despite the region’s belittled relationship to the United States.

I was mentored by Ambassador William Averell Harriman who guided me in grappling with the differing notions of power and service. While still attending school, I was offered positions within U.S. intelligence agencies. I rejected these opportunities because I did not see humanitarian service as the predominant mission characterizing these agencies. Undeterred, I pursued international journalism, hoping to catalyze dialogue across geopolitical borders. I set about to create a model for communication defined by mutual respect for the fundamental, inalienable and self-evident rights of every human being to life, liberty and happiness. Were these not the truths upon which the democratic principles we hold dear had been built?

As I look back at this treasure trove of experience enhanced by hardship, I derive a great sense of accomplishment inherently related to my status as a Georgetown alumnus. This distinction compels me to “plant acorns” so that others may also grow and realize their potential.

In a city and a country where connections, wealth and access to power matter more often than an individual’s integrity and vision, students attending Georgetown on scholarship or financial aid often confront limited opportunities upon graduation. It is therefore only right to consider a student’s employment history in addition to the requisite grade transcripts during the admissions process as evidence of a more robust student profile. Making these complementary and character-revealing documents part and parcel of the academic institutional process would provide a more accurate indicator of an individual’s potential for academic and professional success.

Not long ago, Georgetown University made national news following it’s revelation of a report from a panel convened by the administration and charged with examining and reconciling the school’s participation in the 19th century slave ownership and trade. From the beginning, we learned, Georgetown University supported itself with income generated by its vast tracts of plantation land farmed using slave labor. 

An undeniably shameful aspect of this country’s past, the barbarous history of slave trafficking remains a troublesome legacy fraught with ramifications that continue blemishing our desire to embrace true racial equality. This becomes particularly significant in light of the fact that Georgetown University’s 29th President, Patrick Healy, had, himself, been born into slavery as the son of an Irish-American plantation owner and a mixed race slave woman with whom he established a life-long common-law union. By virtue of their education and lighter complexion, however, Healy and his siblings were able to pass for white, leaving their African American ancestry largely unacknowledged. 

With the latter day rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to incidences of racist violence aimed at African Americans by police authorities, the little known history casts a lingering shadow over the alleged progress of our society with regard to race relations. The report calls for a public apology from Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia and stipulates the implementation an admissions policy which includes special concessions to the descendants of those slaves. The initiative deserves our unambiguous endorsement.

This honest effort to atone for historic complicity in the very foundations of racial inequity by Georgetown University Jesuits, faculty, administrators, students and alumni is a laudable step in the right direction toward creating the exemplary society we always meant to be. Offering reparation to descendants of the 272 slaves sold by Georgetown in the early 1800s in the form of legacy status in admissions is likewise a worthy gesture toward the restoration of service to the core precepts upon which Georgetown University’s educational philosophy is based.

The late-Senator, U.S. Attorney General and Presidential Candidate Robert F. Kennedy understood the moral calling to service behooving him. He encouraged Americans to be more compassionate toward those less fortunate both at home and abroad. Lamentably, his benevolent vision was cut short by violence. While studying at Georgetown, I attended the inaugural ceremony honoring recipients of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, a prize bestowed that day by Ethel Kennedy and Senator Ted Kennedy.

Sadly, the incendiary and divisive rhetoric propagated by this country's current President-elect throughout his campaign were vivid reminders of what can happen to the national political discourse when the concept of service is abandoned entirely in favor of self-serving populist demagoguery.  

The Ivy League home to our nation’s preeminent undergraduate school of diplomacy of Georgetown University must not only be devoted to the protection and pursuit of American interests abroad, but should harness its resources to instill in its students a deep and unwavering sense of humanitarian service.

William Alexander Yankes
Freelance journalist covering Pan-American Affairs
PhD candidate in Latin American Dictatorship Literature and Film
University of California, Irvine


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