In the spring of 2000, as Russian youth flocked to Moscow’s new Internet cafes, Sri Kulkarni, an exchange student from The University of Texas at Austin, also visited the recently converted storefronts to e-mail home.
Inevitably, local and foreigner would meet. When they did, “Sri was in the position to be the native expert, the resident American,” said Thomas J. Garza, then a visiting professor at Moscow State Linguistics University and now an associate professor of Slavic and Eurasian studies at The University of Texas at Austin and director of the Texas Language Center.
Kulkarni agrees. “People would ask me questions about America constantly. I was a de-facto ambassador of America just by virtue of being a student abroad.”
Raised in Houston, Kulkarni didn’t know anyone who aspired to be a diplomat. Even when he entered the Plan II Honors Program in 1996, the Foreign Service wasn’t on Kulkarni’s radar. The son of an American mother and Indian-immigrant father, Kulkarni figured he’d pursue law.
But his semester abroad altered his career trajectory. Instead of applying to law school after graduation, Kulkarni joined the U.S. State Department and learned the ropes of public diplomacy.
Kulkarni went on to serve tours in Taipei and Moscow. In August he returned from his third and “favorite post by far” — 14 months in Kirkuk, Iraq.
Kulkarni, 31, proudly rattles off a list of accomplishments which aided the Iraqi people: establishing a center for abused women, distributing more than 200,000 schoolbooks as part of an Arabic literacy program and starting a training facility for independent media.
He also assembled the first group of non-governmental organizations in Kirkuk based on shared issues rather than ethnic or political party lines.
“In Kirkuk there are Kurds, Turkmens and Arabs all fighting over the same resources, land and government positions,” Kulkarni said. “Getting them to cooperate on anything was a major achievement.”
The traditional role of a public diplomacy officer abroad is to connect the host country’s population with the American people, institutions and culture. Other Foreign Service career tracks include management, politics and economics. A public diplomacy post in Iraq is different than most, with the goal being reconstruction and stabilization of the country.
In Kirkuk, security prohibited Kulkarni from easily bringing American artists, musicians or Fulbright scholars to the province. Instead, he worked to assist Iraqi society to function cohesively rather than along factional lines.
He recruited “The Mud House,” a famed Southern Iraqi comedy troupe to give free performances in Kirkuk. The troupe played to huge crowds rolling with laughter, he said. Despite the levity, the sketches addressed serious issues such as the value of diversity and cooperation between ethnic groups.
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