By Michael Rooney
Campus Life Editor
The Spring college semester means much more than a new year. It also means the beginnings of new adventures of students. Many students are currently studying abroad in a foreign country while others are preparing for their journey of a lifetime to come soon.
More than eager to see students step out of their comfort zones is Vernon D. Penner, Diplomat-in-Residence at Bridgewater State University and Ambassador (ret) of Cape Verde.
Penner, a retired United States diplomat who served from 1963 to 2001, specialized in political/military relations, program direction, and consular affairs. He served seven European tours with assignments deployed in Frankfurt, Warsaw, Oporto, and Zurich. In 1983, Penner was appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of State as Director of the Visa Office in the State Department of Washington.
From 1986 to 1990, Penner served as Ambassador to Cape Verde. In his term, he provided movement of the US Embassy mission elements of the Department of State with fifty members of personnel, an AID program of fifteen million dollars and the successful Peace Corps program of Africa.
Today, Penner is a guest lecturer on Euro-Atlantic security and political and military science at various colleges and universities.
Before 2013, Penner had never been involved with Bridgewater State University until he had the opportunity to meet then Executive Vice President and Vice President of External Affairs Frederick W. Clark through what he described as “serendipity.” The two had met on a two-week excursion tour including Massasoit Community College, Bristol Community College, and Bridgewater State University.
“My college fraternity roommate is president of Bristol Community College,” Penner explained. “He asked me to come along to translate for him. But I ended up really working as much with him as I did with Fred. It brought both business leaders and educational leaders to Cape Verde for a familiarization tour.”
Penner’s meeting with Fred Clark in 2013 was how he became Diplomat-in-Residence at Bridgewater State University, beginning in the Spring of 2014.
Penner is likely the Bridgewater State University employee with the furthest commute, coming from Annapolis, Maryland. However, that does not stop him from setting a goal to familiarize students with international opportunities offered at the university – even if it means only being on campus one week per month.
“I think the personality of Fred Clark played a big role [in my decision to accept this role]. So have other areas and teachers including the Minnock Center, international engagement, the study abroad program, and above all, the Honors Program.
“The university had been trying to establish a Diplomat-in-Residence to bring a hands-on experience of overseas life and politics in diplomacy through the university at a time when the university had greatly expanded its overseas programs and activities.”
In his role, Penner’s mission touches upon three important areas of responsibility.
“One was academic to supplement courses covering topics in which I had personal experience,” he said. This involves his mentoring and lecturing on issues where he has a vision.
“The second area of activity was mentoring students regarding opportunities provided by the US government and the State Department.”
Some of the said opportunities included the National Security Language Institute for Youth, which provides opportunities to study lesser known languages in programs from abroad, and the Presidential Management Fellowship, known as the premier federal government leadership program created to develop those with potential to become government leaders.
“The third area was supporting programs and activities in companies where I have previously served, such as Cape Verde where I’ve been privileged to serve as Ambassador.”
Penner has expressed his frustration that not enough people are staying informed about the state department, international affairs, and cultural immersion courses. He notes that people do not check the community bulletin boards and communication is off.
“Many students do not take advantage of all of the opportunities the institution affords and provides,” he said. “[It is] hard for me to get my message across that I can also be a resource concerning a career in international affairs.”
However, in Penner’s tenure, he has seen great achievements in international affairs.
“I’ve certainly tried to keep Bridgewater State senior people aware of policies and programs that come out of Washington. With this program called Young African Leadership Initiative, the costs are shared between the US government and the college. Last year, our application to host 25 young and professional students was accepted and we became one of four colleges in New England for young professional leaders of Africa.”
Three years into his time with Bridgewater State University, Penner has been gratified to work with the diversity of the community. He has been especially amazed at the multicultural aspect of the diversity because it has helped to open the doors for what he can work with.
“People come from backgrounds of different countries speaking different languages, all of which are important in consideration of the role of the state department overseas,” said Penner. “At times, there are critical language programs designated specifically so that people could study these languages and then be expected to continue these studies beyond the scholarship program and apply to foreign services.”
Specifically, the scholarship program refers to the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program. According to its website, this program is defined as an intensive overseas language and cultural immersion program for American students, both undergraduate and graduate. In participating, the students live and study at over twenty sites abroad over a course of eight to ten weeks each Summer, which is equal to a full year of college-level language courses in fourteen languages.
“One of the great strengths of this institution is that we have such a diverse student body with unique backgrounds. Sometimes, people don’t realize how unique those backgrounds are. They are already culturized and they have a relationship with a foreign country.”
Even while only spending one week per month at Bridgewater State University, Penner has certainly not missed the uniqueness of the community, especially of the faculty.
“I think the level of passion here by so many faculty and administrative people has got to be very special. I do not claim to be very familiar with many academic institutions, but this place really cares about its students.”
Penner talks about the passionate faculty at Bridgewater State University, but he is no exception to this group.
“I don’t think students should leave whatever their field is without some first-hand international experience – education, in my mind, is not complete. You don’t know a foreign country until you’ve lived there and spoken their language.
“I think by the satisfaction I see in students becoming more than they even believe themselves to be by being exposed to these opportunities, it is a privilege to be here because these are all good students.”
BSU Diplomat-in-Residence and Ambassador Vernon Penner is on campus from February 13 to February 17.