Ryan Crocker, former U.S. Ambassador and famous Whitman alum, comes to college

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Former U.S. Ambassador and Whitman graduate Ryan Crocker returned to campus this week, confirming what he had previously stated would be a reoccurring presence.

“Crocker . . . has made involvement with his alma mater a priority, including campus visits,” read the Whitman Web page announcing his arrival.

Crocker visited campus last April and was the feature speaker at 2009 commencement. This week, under the title of “visiting educator,” he offered a public lecture and workshops to students and staff, held office hours and even found time to take on the new climbing wall in Sherwood.

With Crocker now retired and residing in Spokane, Wash., students are excited by the prospect of his becoming a regular visitor to campus.

“I think he definitely fits into what Whitman is trying to do with the global studies program,” said senior Seth Bergeson, who attended Crocker’s workshop, entitled “Public service versus personal conviction: What to do when they collide?”

In his lecture, which addressed America’s engagement in the Middle East, Crocker noted that many Americans suffer from limited knowledge of geography and non-English languages, handicaps that he urged Whitman students to be aware of and to avoid.

“We tend to be geographically challenged. This is why we have the map,” he said, pointing at the massive map that was projected on the wall behind him showing the Middle East, a gesture met with appreciative laughter.

Crocker recommended students gain familiarity with geography and foreign cultures by joining international programs such as the Peace Corps.

“Coming out of Whitman you are prepared for foreign affairs,” he said. Crocker noted that he began considering the Peace Corps his senior year after what he called a revelatory moment at the Green Lantern Tavern.

“I realized that in nine months time I was on my own,” he said.

Bergeson said that while many students who attended the workshop could see themselves involved in foreign affairs, he for one was not sure how he wanted to be involved.

“I was trying to think if I’d want to be in a position like Crocker’s. It was really interesting to learn about the struggles he had in policy work,” Bergeson said, citing Crocker’s admission that he could not directly create or change policy, restricted to giving feedback to policymakers.

Crocker also stressed how understanding the local language of a foreign place is crucial to understanding its culture and history.

“We are depressingly monolingual,” he said, again drawing knowing laughs. “Know their fiction. Know their poetry.”

The claim that limited familiarity with languages handicaps the international role of Americans resonated with senior Lauren Schneider, a double major in foreign languages and literature in Spanish and French.

“I don’t know that he was speaking to us as students, but more as Americans. But as students we can do something about it,” Schneider said. “We can make an effort to study languages and literature.”

Crocker, a 1971 graduate of Whitman and current member of the Board of Overseers, retired from the United States Foreign Service and moved back to his childhood house in Spokane, Wash. in March 2009. This was his second lecture at Whitman since retiring, suggesting that he has fully taken on a new jacket as academic instructor.

“There are many ways I can be introduced,” Crocker said as he took the stage Tuesday night.

Over half the crowd at the lecture was faculty and community members. Of the Whitman students that came, many left during the question and answer segment. Audience questions ranged from the likelihood of instituting a draft to the implications of pressing democracy on other countries. One question even prompted Crocker to reply in Arabic, a language in which he is fluent.

Bergeson and Schneider both had additional questions they hope to ask Crocker when he next visits.

“I’d really like to talk to him more,” Bergeson said.




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