A Perfect Fit
If anyone seems born to enter the Foreign Service, it’s Natella Svistunova BA’96, JD’00: Born and raised in Moscow, she came to the U.S. in 1990 as part of one of the first exchange groups from the Soviet Union. She was a 16-year-old high school student and describes it as “a huge, huge, huge culture shock. It was really like going to the moon."
Then the government back home collapsed and she scrapped her plans to attend Moscow State University as an art history
major. Her host parents in Seattle urged her to attend college in the States; she got in to Harvard and Columbia but chose Willamette University. Her love of the Pacific Northwest and Willamette’s generous undergraduate scholarship persuaded her to stay in this part of the country. She has worked virtually every job on the Willamette campus and has fond memories of her years at the university.
Svistunova decided to go to the law school because she needed a mental challenge, she says. “I came over as a foreigner and I became more and more like an American. I really wanted to learn the fundamentals — things like constitutional law and contracts, to really understand the country inside and out.
“Willamette was such a good environment; it lets you make mistakes, lets you learn, try, be yourself,” Svistunova says. “I never considered any other place for law school.” Professor Vince Chiappetta, who taught Svistunova antitrust and intellectual property law, says she was “really curious, really energetic, always asked interesting questions. She was a lot of fun to have in class.
“She made her own career,” he says. “She was always willing to look at what the possibilities were instead of waiting for
opportunities to come to her.”
After graduation, Svistunova worked at the Ater Wynne law firm and Nautilus Inc. She became a U.S. citizen. On a visit to a friend who worked for the U.S. State Department in Thailand, Svistunova realized that a similar career to her friend’s would enable her to learn more languages and experience other cultures. So she took the Foreign Service exam and landed as a vice consul at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.
Already fluent in Russian, Georgian and English, she has added Spanish to her portfolio of languages. Her husband is a musician; she recently gave birth to a daughter.
Before going on maternity leave, Svistunova spent her days interviewing applicants and adjudicating U.S. visas. She says it was a bit like being a low-level judge. “You learn so many fascinating stories,” she says. “Loved ones going to visit their families in a hospital, going to a wedding, funerals. Very quickly you acquire the skill to tell if someone is not being truthful.”
Since returning from leave, Svistunova’s responsibilities have changed somewhat; she now deals with issues primarily involving residents of Mexico or those simply visiting the country. She says she misses the U.S., misses being able to drink water straight from the faucet, going to Sauvie Island, picking raspberries and making jam with friends. She rents out her home in southwest Portland and speaks somewhat wistfully of her former life in the Pacific Northwest.
But her job is all-absorbing. Asked how she feels about illegal immigration, the biggest issue in U.S.–Mexico relations, she replies, “Our model is open, legitimate travel and secure borders. There are tons of people who come and go and do great work for both countries.”
“Willamette was such a good environment; it lets you make mistakes, lets you learn, try, be yourself,…I never considered any other place for law school.”