Adventures abroad began with French and Russian studies

by Jennifer Johnson,

  • Eric Swinn ’06 talks to a fisherman in India
    In 2013-15, Eric Swinn ’06 was stationed in Chennai, India. Here he's speaking to a local fisherman in the Kerala about net fishing techniques used in the region.
  • Swinn walks with two children in the town of Fatehpur Sikri.
    Swinn walks with two children in the town of Fatehpur Sikri, India.
  • Swinn gives a presentation.
    Swinn gives a presentation to a university in South India during an outreach visit. He's discussing the U.S. educational system and encouraged students to study in America.

Eric Swinn ’06 is a first-generation student from a small town in Oregon. He chose to study foreign language at Willamette, and the decision unlocked a career that took him around the world. 

Last year, he became deputy chief of consular affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Brussels, the latest of several posts abroad that required him to work with the international community. He’s uncovered fraud rings in Russia, worked on child abduction cases in the Middle East and assisted refugees in Europe. He’s lived in South Korea, Russia, Ukraine and Japan. 

Swinn, who is from Roseburg, sought a university small enough to interact meaningfully with professors and be exposed to experiences and ideas beyond what he’d known. He found what he needed at Willamette. 

Legacy of language, mentors

Swinn was a self-directed student. He knew he wanted to study French and some Russian. After he visited Willamette and met a French professor who was engaging, demanding and kind, he realized he found the right place. 

Opportunities for foreign travel and cultural connections were plentiful. Tutoring students at Tokyo International University of America for a few years introduced him to friends he visited after graduation. During his junior year, he studied abroad in Ukraine, taking French and Russian classes during the Orange Revolution in 2004. 

“It was an interesting time to be studying language in Ukraine, when linguistic preferences were used as a basis to deepen pre existing societal divisions,” he said. “That experience exposed me to the importance of both politics and the role of language within the societal fabric of the former Soviet Union. Though I was primarily looking at focusing on language for my career, after this time in Ukraine I decided to eventually focus on Russian politics.”  

Language professors including Gaetano DeLeonibus, Amadou Fofana and former Russian Department Chair Mark Conliffe influenced Swinn during his undergraduate career and their guidance lasted far beyond it. Conliffe assisted Swinn in submitting work to literary journals, a few of which published his work, and once appeared at a presentation Swinn gave in Portland. Conliffe also taught him one life lesson that’s paid off countless times during his foreign service career — when to ask for help.   

“When you’re constantly facing situations you’ve never faced before, the ability to pick up the phone and ask for help to make the right decision in a moment of crisis is extremely valuable,” he said. 

By the time Swinn graduated, professors had so expertly guided him, he had a resume that prepared him for opportunities available to very few students, he said. 

Russia and beyond

After spending a year in Korea as a Fulbright scholar, Swinn’s language degrees led to more language and policy studies at the University of California Los Angeles and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

His knowledge of Russian was essential to the early stages of his career, first at the U.S. Department of Energy supporting policy related to Russia and Ukraine, then at the U.S. Consulate General in Chennai, India. Media training at the BBC in London followed, as did a job at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. 

His fluency snagged him a position on a fraud-prevention team, conducting lengthy interviews with Russian visa applicants who were suspected of criminal activity and organized crime. As a result, the department was able to uncover large rings of fraud to improve protection of U.S. borders, he said.  

He also once supported U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who met Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in 2015. “It was definitely an experience a non-Russian speaker wouldn’t typically receive, standing within the Kremlin palace walls at night while the secretary of state met the president,” he said. 

In 2017, he began using French again as a refugee officer with the U.S. Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration in the district, where he worked with U.N. agencies and nongovernmental organizations across Europe in support of U.S. humanitarian goals. During his next assignment, he worked closely with Francophone counterparts across North Africa and the Middle East to return children abducted from the U.S. He also speaks French at home in Brussels. 

“French is very necessary,” he said. “I knew the language was important to maintain before, but when I started working on humanitarian situations at the state department, it was absolutely critical. It’s widely spoken by the international community.” 

As a foreign service officer, he’s found a way to synthesize his knowledge of different countries and appreciation for other cultures in a role that continuously changes over the course of a career, he said. 

“It allows me to act on the Willamette motto of serving others, which is also something I keep coming back to,” he said. “It stayed with me longer than I expected. I think that’s because the professors live the motto while you’re there, and their example shows you how to carry the motto with you as well.” 

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