REECAS alumna Caroline Savage’s storied career as a Foreign Service Officer and advice to future REECAS graduates

UW-Madison REECAS Alumna ('02) Caroline Savage
UW-Madison REECAS alumna (’02) Caroline Savage

Since REECAS alumna Caroline Savage joined the Foreign Service 16 years ago, she has done work in DC and overseas in four of the five specialties of the Foreign Service within the State Department: Consular, Political, Economic, and Public Diplomacy. Most recently, Savage wrapped up an assignment as Director of the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Press Center, and she is now enrolled in a full-time Kazakh language training program for a new appointment as Consul General at the U.S. Consulate in Almaty, Kazakhstan – a regional hub of roughly 260 employees of the many U.S. agencies in Central Asia.

Caroline Savage has led a storied career, and CREECA recently had the privilege of sitting down with Caroline to hear about her professional trajectory since her time with CREECA.

A native of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, Savage earned an MA in Political Science and Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies (REECAS) in 2002 from UW-Madison. As a student and young professional, Savage interned on Capitol Hill, in journalism at CNN Moscow, and at the Eurasia Foundation; she also taught English in Russia during a year studying abroad. Savage told CREECA that she sees these early experiences – as well as her academic and study abroad experiences – as collectively helping her articulate both her motivation and fit for the Foreign Service.

CREECA: How did your time with CREECA influence the direction of your career?

CS: My time at CREECA was a great influence on the direction of my career at a critical time when I had fallen in love with the Russian language and wanted to learn more about the region. I loved the multidisciplinary nature of the program that allowed me to take language, history, literature, political science, and geography classes that inspired a passion for many fascinating aspects of the region. I especially enjoyed Professor Bob Kaiser’s Geography of Central Asia course, which was my first in-depth look at Central Asia. I am very excited to finally have the chance to live and work in the region for the coming three years.

Prior to becoming a Foreign Service Officer in 2004, Savage worked briefly as a USAID (United States Agency for International Development) contractor supporting the development of the energy and utility regulatory sector in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.  Having passed the customary Foreign Service written and oral examinations, she initially selected the Public Diplomacy cone and has taken on varied and exciting appointments since then.

CREECA: What has it been like to work in the Foreign Service?

CS: I love the chance to change jobs every two to three years. After the first two directed assignments, it really is up to you to choose your own adventures and go after the challenges, regions, languages, and issues that you would like to work on. For me, at least, the reading, research, linguistic, and interpersonal challenges that are central to these career shifts are stimulating and help me keep up my motivation to continue to learn and grow throughout my career.

In 2018, Savage celebrated the opening of a Native American art exhibition at the Azerbaijan State Carpet Museum with Public Affairs team members.

With professional proficiency in Azerbaijani, French, Portuguese, and Russian, Savage’s language skills have shaped her trajectory within the U.S. Department of State. Because of her French proficiency, she was assigned to Luxembourg to help with Luxembourg’s European Union Presidency. And her ability to use Russian led her to an appointment in Minsk, Belarus during and after a period when the Belarusian President had expelled 30 U.S. diplomats. Savage and the Embassy team worked to keep the U.S. Embassy open with just four officers – a true exercise in strategic prioritization.

CREECA: What advice do you have about using language skills in professional settings?

CS: Take every opportunity to practice, practice, practice. And throw away your inhibitions! At least for the first few years, if you are not making a fool of yourself at least once a week, you’re not pushing yourself hard enough to develop and use everything you can.

After these stints abroad, Savage returned to DC for two tours during the first years of the “reset” of U.S.-Russia relations, serving as the Political-Military Officer on the Russia Desk and then as Director for Russia and Central Asia on the National Security Council. From there, Savage served as Public Affairs Officer at U.S. Embassies in Mozambique and Azerbaijan. Her section led the missions’ strategic public diplomacy efforts, including press and public outreach and programs supporting civil society, independent journalism, and education.

Savage hosted the U.S. Presidential Inauguration event in Mozambique in 2013.

Savage returned to Washington in 2018 for the opportunity to work as a Dean Rusk Fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy where she taught courses and mentored students considering careers in foreign policy. At Georgetown, she launched an outreach project that aims to increase diversity and representation among the ranks of foreign policy professionals. Savage invites those interested in the Diverse Diplomacy project to view some fascinating, candid, and insight-rich interviews with diplomacy leaders here.

In Savage’s most recent appointment as Director of the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Press Center, she committed to deepening the global understanding of U.S. policy and American values through engagement with foreign media. In particular, her offices have assisted 2,200 U.S.-based journalists withing obtaining first-hand, authoritative information. “A real highlight of this job has been helping journalists access information about the U.S. elections, including sponsoring visits to the presidential primaries, especially prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Savage said.

Savage judged the Women’s Business Hackathon at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy in 2017.

As Savage embarks on a new adventure this fall as Consul General in Almaty, Kazakhstan, she has these guiding words to share with tomorrow’s global leaders.

CREECA: What career advice might you offer to current and future REECAS students at UW-Madison?

CS: Study what energizes and inspires you and commit yourself to that exploration. And if you can find the chance to work abroad or in a major organization that focuses on your chosen field, then absolutely take the opportunity to do so for a summer or even a semester. Working in the sector before graduating can be helpful for launching you in the right direction once you have your degree. If you are interested in government sector work, do take the exam and/or apply for the positions as early as possible. My security clearance took several years, especially due to my previous time living and working in Russia.

REECAS alumni are global professionals with regional expertise, multilingual talent, and an interdisciplinary perspective. CREECA looks forward to catching up with Caroline Savage soon again. Stayed tuned for future alumni spotlights in the CREECA Connection. A broad overview of REECAS alumni can be found here.

Written by Ryan Goble