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No foreigner to Fairbanks: Sara Harriger ’04 By Sam Bishop

UAF photo by JR Ancheta.

When Sara Harriger ’04 left Fairbanks for a year of high school in Belgium at 16 years old, she saw herself leaving behind a backward, uninteresting place.

“I was eager to get away. I felt kind of stifled or something,” she recalled. “I was going to find some bold new horizon.”

That she did, after first earning undergraduate degrees at UAF in 2004 and then joining the U.S. State Department’s diplomatic corps.

Now, following more than a decade of work in high-profile, sometimes dangerous locations around the world, her daily physical horizons are once again those that surround Fairbanks.

Harriger quit her job as the U.S. consul for western France in 2017 to become executive director of the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center in downtown Fairbanks.

By then, her teenage disdain for her hometown had long since faded. Another fact makes her return less surprising. During the intervening years, she’d always kept a house in Fairbanks.

“I thought maybe I’d find a way to come back here and do something meaningful for Alaska,” she said.

Iraq experience

Harriger was on a few weeks’ leave away from her post in Irbil, Iraq, when an explosion blew out her office windows.

“The compound was bombed,” she said. “Everybody inside our compound was OK. We were targeted, and it was civilians who paid the price. That was a real low moment.”

Harriger was on a yearlong assignment, starting in September 2014, as a State Department press officer in northern Iraq. All around, the U.S. military and other countries battled the region’s Islamic state group.

Sara Harriger, center, visits a camp in Iraq. Harriger was documenting a VIP visit. Photo courtesy of Sara Harriger.

The bombing was the closest she came to the fight. She worked in a compound surrounded by concrete T-walls, with a staff of six Iraqis. Her work involved assisting the international press corps and doing some cultural outreach. In the latter role, she had a close view of people trying to make it through a horrific war.

“The refugee camps were emotionally the hardest thing,” she said. “To see the number of people who were just fighting to survive. These are people who months before were lawyers, doctors, shop owners, farmers. They have kids.”

Harriger said she didn’t experience any longer-term trauma from her year in Iraq.

“The State Department does a pretty good job of balancing between keeping people safe and being able to do the work,” she said. “But you never know. Lots of diplomats have died doing their jobs.”

“For some of the people who were there when the explosion happened, that was very stressful,” she added.

Despite the danger, she finished the year with a deep fondness for Iraq and its people, especially her former staff members from the region.

“The refugee camps were emotionally the hardest thing,” she said. “To see the number of people who were just fighting to survive.”

“These are lovely people with beautiful families and emotional and intellectual lives, good food, cute kids,” she said. “It’s a beautiful countryside, and they’ve just faced these challenges that are just hard to imagine.”

Seeing the world

Harriger’s high school year at a Catholic girls’ school in Belgium had a curious effect upon her State Department career. While in Europe, she became friends with a group of young people from North Africa. Through them, she learned to speak some Arabic, and she continued to study it.

Photo caption: Sara Harriger’s official State Department portrait. Courtesy of Sara Harriger.

Years later, after completing degrees in anthropology and French at UAF, she took the foreign service exam. To her surprise, she passed. In July 2006, she headed to the State Department’s “boot camp for diplomats” in Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.

Her ability to speak Arabic helped determine her first assignment: Saudi Arabia.

The State Department classified it as a dangerous location. About a year before Harriger’s arrival, Al Qaeda militants had invaded the U.S. consulate in Jeddah and killed several employees.

Harriger’s new job in Saudi Arabia kept her busy. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, anyone hoping to travel to the U.S. from that country had to complete a consulate interview to obtain a visa.

“We interviewed 75 people a day, each of us,” she said. “There was very high demand for visas to the U.S.”

She didn’t see much of the country during her year there. She lived in a compound with other diplomats and some wealthy Saudis. The national guard checked cars.

Despite the tight security in Saudi Arabia, Harriger said, her next assignment felt more risky. She spent two years in India as a political reporting officer.

“We were not under the same kind of security restrictions. We had more freedom, but India was a much more dangerous place,” she said. “Street crime and random acts of terrorism were common. When I was there, the attack on the hotel in Mumbai happened, and there were regular bombings in New Delhi the first year I was there.”

Japan was the next career stop, after 11 months back in Washington, D.C., for language training.

The number of students coming to the U.S. from Japan had dropped, she said. She helped efforts to reverse that trend, including through the Tomodachi Initiative.

Photo caption: Students from Japan sent these messages to Sara Harriger thanking her for her work in a program to encourage study abroad in the U.S. Photo courtesy of Sara Harriger.

“I built programs to encourage young people to use their English, learn about the United States and gently encourage them to study in the U.S.,” she said. “It was a good fit for me. It was a wonderful place to discover, and I loved my work there.”

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.”