Julia Nelson’s work takes her to places that it’s not uncommon for the U.S. State Department to issue travel advisories about: South Sudan, Nicaragua and, next month, Nigeria.
Nelson, an Austin native and graduate of Baylor and American universities, is a contract assessment and planning specialist for the department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, which aims to resolve conflict and crises in global hot spots while attempting to address the root causes of violence.
“It’s not a very glamorous picture,” Nelson said this month while in her hometown to attend a conference at the University of Texas. “It’s a lot of work to get around any of these places.”
Nelson, 28, is typically in country anywhere from two weeks to a year, and most recently was in South Sudan in the months after its referendum on independence from the Republic of Sudan, working with the U.S. Embassy there on the transition.
The State Department in March strongly advised against Americans traveling to the country, saying “the Government of South Sudan has limited capacity to deter crime or provide security to travelers outside of the capital city of Juba.” In the Republic of Sudan, the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum was attacked in September.
Sudan and South Sudan have repeatedly clashed over control of and access to oil-rich areas, and both have accused the other of supporting rebels. Sudan was plagued by economic crisis and hyperinflation; the flow of oil from its oil-rich Heglig area was for a time greatly reduced. There also were issues of national identity and citizenship for people who have migrated across greater Sudan. Nation-building takes work, and it’s vastly harder when those involved don’t have a clear understanding of the characters and issues in play.
“It’s tricky to get those relationships clear,” Nelson said in a demonstration of diplomatic understatement. “Would South Sudan have transitioned to independence without us? It’s hard to know. But getting to see things like that drives me. The little things you do every day make a difference.”
Nelson had opportunities to travel through school and church while at Austin High School, doing a student exchange in Oaxaca, Mexico, and building houses and working with young people in rural Suriname in South America. It was work not unlike what she had been doing closer to home.
“Giving back to the community is an important thing,” she said, but exposure abroad showed her it was possible to have a global impact.
“Every time you take on a new assignment you start from scratch,” said Nelson, who studied international studies and religion at Baylor University, where she says she was “kind of a peacenik.” “It’s a new puzzle. I get antsy if I’m behind a desk too long.”
Nelson was drawn to Africa in particular because “the continent has more conflicts than the rest of the world,” she said. “There’s a lot of work and a lot of opportunity there.”
She speaks of mapping out “the context of conflict,” of getting a handle on “underlying tensions and grievances,” and of making sure short- and long-term policy goals match up.
Although usually working out of the U.S. embassy in whatever country she’s posted to, Nelson tries to get into the field as much as she can to get a first-hand picture of what the issues are in outlying areas. Sometimes that involves traveling in an armored vehicle. She’s had some scary moments — at South Sudan checkpoints manned by soldiers who had been drinking, for example — but says minimum security restrictions have to be in place before venturing out.
“There’s a great deal of value to getting U.S. government officers out to these sites,” she said. “Usually at the embassy the security officer will say, ‘You want to do what?’”
Nelson, who recently became engaged, has been working for the State Department for about three years and says she’d like to continue to do the type of work she’s done, despite the strain that prolonged foreign postings can have on domestic life.
“I would like to remain plugged in in the long term,” she said.