From being born in Rhode Island to growing up in Pakistan, Tim Brown never expected to find himself working in Wisconsin.
Brown, of UW-Extension, dreamed bigger, or at least further, which isn’t surprising given how far he’s been already. A childhood in the Middle East was followed by a study abroad program in Bangladesh, a Peace Corp tour in the Dominican Republic, and now Brown finds himself on the precipice of yet another adventure.
Earlier this month Brown accepted a position with the United States Department of State, where he’ll travel to a new destination every few years, and get paid for it.
“I will be a foreign service officer,” Brown said. “I’ll be staffing an embassy, that’s the easiest way to put it.”
The job has been his dream for a long time, something he started thinking about way back when he went to elementary school alongside the children of ambassadors and diplomats in Pakistan.
And it has been a long journey to get there, through two degrees in international affairs, and a failed first attempt at the position.
“I gave it a try once, and didn’t make it through the interviews… ended up finding this job right around the same time that I was looking at that,” Brown said, referring to his current position as a community, natural resource and economic development agent for the Oneida County Extension Office. “This seemed like a really good fit, given a lot of my skills, and I had never lived in rural America before.”
After his family left Pakistan, where his father worked as pastor of an international church, they moved to Madison, where Brown spent his teenage years.
“This seemed like a valuable chance to spend more time in a part of the country that I really did love. I came to Northern Wisconsin a lot as a kid. It was neat to get back here and really get into the community,” Brown said.
After graduating from the nationally acclaimed Trinity Fellows Program at Marquette University, Brown and his wife, Kim, moved straight to D.C., planning to find a job there while he worked on the embassy application process.
“It became clear, pretty quick, that I’d be sitting in a cubicle, managing databases for some project, far away, that I may or may not ever get to connect directly with,” Brown said.
The two spent a few months in D.C. before randomly coming across a job posting for a position with UW-Extension. Brown said he was sure he wouldn’t be qualified for the position, but gave it a try.
“Honestly, it’s been very rewarding. A much better experience than I would have gotten in a cubicle in Washington,” he said.
Connecting with a community is what Brown says drove him to his line of work. Whether in a rural farming village in Latin America, or a small town in Wisconsin. Building connections and working to improve the lives of community members is what he’s all about.
“There’s so much emphasis on the relationship and being part of the community and really getting that exchange going,” Brown said. “You come into a situation and it’s like, I’m a white kid who grew up in the suburban Midwest, who went to college, who reads, who carries an iPod around with me… what do I have in common with an elderly Dominican farmer who never got to go to school?”
But Brown said he found himself learning more from the people there than he taught in return.
“We go out there sort of thinking we’re going to change the world, and we’re going to make all these good things happen, and we’re going to help people,” Brown said. “But we all come away feeling as though we have been served and helped, and we’ve been given so much more than we’ve given back. And it’s definitely true for me, true for my wife, true for most other volunteers who I’ve ever talked to.”
As a Peace Corp volunteer, he lived on his own, the only American in the community, with no electricity and limited running water. He was responsible for creating and working on what he called “poverty alleviation projects.”
His time in the Peace Corps wasn’t just a valuable learning experience—it’s also where he met his wife, something that may have added to his fascination with travelling.
“We both were just totally in love with this lifestyle, where you get to connect with people who are so different from yourselves, and you get to be constantly learning, and tackling the challenges that come with life abroad,” Brown said. “And we wanted to go back.”
Kim is hoping to get a job with the embassy as well, or pursue teaching, which she has a degree in.
“I’m still in shock a little bit,” she said. “Everything happened so fast… It’s completely different, a whole new change, I’m still not sure what it’s going to entail for me… I’m really excited about going.”
During his time in Rhinelander, Brown worked on a lot of projects that benefitted the community, particularly his ongoing effort to improve broadband availability for the county. Being paid in part by county taxes, Brown said it was always his priority to do things that the people he served found value in.
“It’s tough now, wrapping things up,” Brown said. “I would have really liked to have been here a year from now to sort of see how this plays out and to see if it works and to keep working on it. And so, yeah, bittersweet is a great word for it.”
The application process for the embassy job is so rigorous that Brown started applying almost two years ago. He said he’s known for a while that he was in the last stages, and might be getting the call at any time.
“The waiting has been really tough, you know, there are long periods where you’re just waiting for word, or you don’t really know what’s going to happen. And you sort of feel like you’re planning your life on two tracks,” Brown said.
“It wasn’t an easy decision at all, this is a great community to live in,” Brown said. “There’s some really incredible people in this community, who are really publicly-minded, who are doing good work for the benefit of the whole community.”
As to where Brown will end up, even he doesn’t know. Officers like him won’t even find out their first post until a few months into training, and could be anywhere in the world.
“One of the conditions of employment is worldwide availability,” Brown said. “But I’ve heard that most officers get to learn three, four, five different languages in the course of their career, so it could be anywhere. Except Antarctica, I don’t think we have a station there…”
Each embassy has a different mission, goals specific to that country, but in general Brown’s job will simply be to “facilitate dialogue”—learning, teaching, communicating—connecting with the community, which he has certainly done before.
“Helping foreign publics to understand what the United Stated is all about,” Brown said. “Not just policies, but also sort of sharing culture and sharing American history, and helping to build those connections and relationships between the foreign public and U.S. government.”
Brown will have worked his last day at UW-Extension on Jan. 2, and will begin his training in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 12, just a month and a day since he got the news on Dec. 11.
“I want to serve my country well—I want to be a good representation of the people of the communities and of the government who I’m serving. And I just want to do that really well, in whatever setting I happen to be in.”