She arrived in Japan shortly after the March 2011 tsunami that destroyed communities along the northeastern coast. “That was a big part of my time there. It was a huge shock,” she said.
Her Iraq tour followed Japan, again after a brief return to D.C. While in Iraq, Harriger saw that the position of U.S. consul for western France would soon open.
French training pays off
Diplomatic positions in France are highly competitive within the State Department, and securing one depends in part upon an applicant’s score on a language exam. For help, Harriger looked back to UAF and her former professor, Yelena Matusevich.
They had first met when Harriger, in her late teens, took a French course from Matusevich, who at the time was early in her teaching career at UAF and had recently redesigned the program as an “extremely rigorous” classical French curriculum. Matusevich said she could see Harriger’s energy and intelligence from the first.
Harriger then spent a year in France on a French government-sponsored program that Matusevich had suggested. Later, Harriger sent Matusevich a card thanking her for the stringent grammar lessons.
The young professor and student became close in subsequent years. “Now the difference doesn’t seem so big. We’re just friends,” Matusevich said.
So, at the compound in Irbil, Harriger knew whom she needed when she saw the French consulate position open.
“She would call me from her ‘dungeon’ in Iraq and we would train over Skype,” Matusevich said. “She passed [the language exam] with flying colors.”
Top left: Sara Harriger joins the late Sen. John McCain for a photograph after supporting his trip to the Iraqi Kurdistan region. Top right: Harriger visits with actor George Takei, his husband Brad and U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy in Tokyo. Bottom left: State Department diplomats join Mick Jagger, of the Rolling Stones, at a reception for the New York City Ballet. Bottom right: Harriger represents the United States at a ceremonial planting of dogwood trees, gifts to Japan from the U.S. symbolizing friendship and reciprocating the gift of cherry trees made by Japan. Photos courtesy of Sara Harriger.
Harriger became the first person from Alaska to serve as a U.S. consul in France, a unique background that drew considerable media attention in the country.
Despite all her language training, Harriger said, she still felt a little nervous about speaking in her new high-profile position. The job required her to do a lot of it, though. As consul, she visited trade shows and participated in cultural activities, such as commemorations at American cemeteries from the two world wars.
“My French was like high school Belgian,” she said with a laugh. “I spent several months getting to the point where I felt I wouldn’t slip in some slang from 1996 without realizing it.”
At UAF, a nudge
Harriger has lifelong memories of UAF. Her mother worked for the Music Department for many years. Her father worked in maintenance at the airport post office. They met at The Pub.
Growing up, Harriger attended summer fine arts camps and festivals on campus. She participated in UAF theater productions when she was a high school freshman.
She started taking UAF summer classes before graduating from West Valley High School in 1998, but it took her awhile to settle on anthropology and French as her majors.
“Basically, I had kind of a slow start,” she said. In the meantime, she found a student job in the Rasmuson Library’s oral history archives.
Robyn Russell ’88, the oral history collection manager, hired her and soon saw her potential.
“Sara was telling me that she had been overseas in France as a foreign exchange student. She spoke French really well,” Russell said. “Even back then, she was what I would call naturally diplomatic. She was mature, she was tactful, she was thoughtful.”
Russell decided to encourage Harriger to take the foreign service exam.
“She came in one day with a stack of papers she had printed off from the State Department and said she thought it could be a good fit for me,” Harriger said.
Harriger wasn’t so sure. But she took the exam, passed and soon was off to chase those bold new horizons.
Until the Fairbanks skyline called her home.
Serving the community
When Harriger saw the Morris Thompson Center job open in 2017, she applied from far-off France.
“The timing was very good to come back to Fairbanks,” she said. She had recently married and had a young son.
The center hosts visitor information and cultural programs focused on Interior Alaska. Partners in the effort include Explore Fairbanks, the National Park Service, Tanana Chiefs Conference and the Athabascan elders’ organization Denakkanaaga.
The Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center sits between the Chena River and Wendell Avenue, left of the Wendell Avenue Bridge at the right edge of the photograph. UAF photo by Todd Paris.
“It’s a really interesting organization doing a neat service for the community and for visitors,” Harriger said. “This is a different scale, but we’re trying to do pretty big things in this building.”
Matusevich said Harriger once told her that she worried her return to Fairbanks would disappoint her former professor.
“I wasn’t disappointed at all. She has done what she has wanted,” Matusevich said. “I’m very proud of her, and I’m very proud that she remained such a faithful, good friend.”