In the spring of 2000, as Russian youth flocked to Moscow's new Internet cafes, Sri Kulkarni, an exchange student from The University of Texas at Austin, also visited the recently converted storefronts to e-mail home.
Inevitably, local and foreigner would meet. When they did, "Sri was in the position to be the native expert, the resident American," says Thomas J. Garza, then a visiting professor at Moscow State Linguistics University and now an associate professor of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at The University of Texas and director of the Texas Language Center.Kulkarni agrees. "People would ask me questions about America constantly. I was a de-facto ambassador of America just by virtue of being a student abroad."
Raised in Houston, Kulkarni didn't know anyone who aspired to be a diplomat. Even when he entered the Plan II Honors Program in 1996, the Foreign Service wasn't on Kulkarni's radar. The son of an American mother and Indian-immigrant father, Kulkarni figured he'd pursue law.
But his semester abroad altered his career trajectory. Instead of applying to law school after graduation, Kulkarni joined the U.S. State Department and learned the ropes of public diplomacy.
Kulkarni went on to serve tours in Taipei and Moscow. In August he returned from his third and "favorite post by far" - 14 months in Kirkuk, Iraq.
Kulkarni, 31, proudly rattles off a list of accomplishments which aided the Iraqi people: establishing a center for abused women, distributing over 200,000 schoolbooks as part of an Arabic literacy program, starting a training facility for independent media.
He also assembled the first group of non-governmental organizations in Kirkuk based on shared issues rather than ethnic or political party lines.
"In Kirkuk there are Kurds, Turkmens and Arabs all fighting over the same resources, land, and government positions," Kulkarni explains. "Getting them to cooperate on anything was a major achievement."
The traditional role of a public diplomacy officer abroad is to connect the host country's population with the American people, institutions and culture. Other Foreign Service career tracks include management, politics and economics. A public diplomacy post in Iraq is different than most, with the goal being reconstruction and stabilization of the country.
In Kirkuk, security prohibited Kulkarni from easily bringing American artists, musicians or Fulbright scholars to the province. Instead, he worked to assist Iraqi society to function cohesively rather than along factional lines.
He recruited "The Mud House," a famed Southern Iraqi comedy troupe to give free performances in Kirkuk. The troupe played to huge crowds rolling with laughter, he said. Despite the levity, the sketches addressed serious issues such as the value of diversity and cooperation between ethnic groups.
Kulkarni is currently in Washington, D.C., at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) learning Hebrew. He also learned Chinese and Arabic at FSI in preparation for prior tours.This summer he will move to Israel, where he will serve as director of the American Center in Jerusalem, advancing cross-cultural outreach between Israelis, Arabs and Americans.
Kulkarni plans to build upon the center's use of technology as a diplomatic tool. In 2009 the center conducted digital video conferences between Israeli and American students regarding ethnicity, religion and politics in the region and used Twitter to send Hebrew messages about President Obama's historic Cairo speech addressing peace in the Middle East.
These Middle East career posts weren't imaginable to Kulkarni when he graduated from the Lamar High School's magnet program in Houston and started college.
He credits Robert King, former dean of the College of Liberal Arts and former chair of the Linguistics Department, for sparking his interest in the Foreign Service. "Dr. King's stories of traveling around the world and learning languages inspired me to consider different career possibilities," says Kulkarni.
The fire was lit in King's course, "India and the West." Kulkarni's semester in Moscow fanned the flame. Kulkarni describes the exchange program as the seminal event that re-routed his life course.
When he returned from Moscow, Kulkarni sought a career focused on travel and language instruction. Graduating with a triple-major in Russian, Linguistics and Plan II, he deemed the Foreign Service a perfect fit.
Kulkarni took a series of competitive examinations to apply. He estimates that 10 percent of public diplomacy applicants passed the written exams and were invited to take oral exams. Of those who took the oral tests, 8 percent received conditional offers of employment pending medical and security clearance. Kulkarni ran this highly selective gauntlet and was on his way to achieving his dreams.
"Sri was one of the best students I had in my course," says King. "He was hardworking, ambitious, enthusiastic and very likeable. We need people like him in the Foreign Service." While many of King's former students have gone on to successful careers in law, public policy and government affairs, King says Kulkarni is the only one he knows of to pursue the Foreign Service.
Kulkarni isn't surprised. Historically, the majority of candidates have come from the East Coast. "If you go back about 20 years or so, there's almost nobody from Texas in the Foreign Service," says Kulkarni. "There are so many different faces of America. We want to present that complete picture to the rest of the world."
Kulkarni would like to see more University of Texas graduates follow in his footsteps.
"There are a lot of young people from Texas that I think could be great representatives of America." To anyone with an interest in traveling, learning languages, and representing the United States abroad, Kulkarni says, "Take the test. Give it a shot."
However, in addition to the obvious pitfalls like being far from family or working in a war zone, Kulkarni warns of one difficulty some Texans will face abroad, "Texas barbecue is really hard to come by."
By Susan Szafir