Crisis to Calm: A Journey from High Stakes Diplomacy to Higher Education
In the aftermath of fires, floods and international conflict, Jane Zimmerman has witnessed true compassion.
People at war giving first aid to the opposition. Struggling survivors of past disasters rushing to help the newly afflicted. Villagers offering their homes, friendship and what little they have to strangers.
As a rookie Foreign Service officer in Mali, Africa; a veteran embassy leader evacuating Americans from war-torn Lebanon via Cyprus; and a Red Cross executive director on a relief mission in the Gaza Strip, Zimmerman has seen the world at its worst and best.
She balances that duality with a mantra learned from an early mentor: The best people have a cold eye and a warm heart.
“You need a cold analytical eye, but you also need to know that everything you do will have an impact on someone else,” she said. “It’s not just what you do, it’s how you do it. Being kind to one another is of utmost importance. It can literally save lives.”
Zimmerman brings three decades of world travel experience to Davidson College, where she’ll be the new John and Ruth McGee Director of the Dean Rusk International Studies Program. She begins in July.
She says she wants to help students from all majors and means have an opportunity to travel, study and research abroad: “It can be an incredibly powerful experience. You learn so much about other countries and cultures, but you learn even more about your own country and yourself.”
Zimmerman also plans to connect students with internships, jobs and volunteer organizations such as the Peace Corps.
“I want students to see the opportunities that are out there -- it’s not always a clear or easy path -- but it should be one within reach,” she said. “I will do what I can to make those opportunities open and accessible for whatever paths students wish to pursue.”
She plans to build on Davidson’s longstanding partnership with the World Affairs Council of Charlotte, and collaborate with the U.S. State Department’s diplomat-in-residence at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“I hope that Davidson students will look at the Foreign Service and public service as a wonderful future career,” she said.
With North Carolina’s growing international population, Zimmerman also wants to expand relationships with local and regional communities. Zimmerman says she was impressed to learn about Davidson Refugee Support from Daniel Thomas ’21, a search committee member.
“One out of four people in the United States is either an immigrant or first-generation American,” she said. “We need to recognize and value the diversity of our own communities.”
Search committee members say Zimmerman’s extensive travels, experience, enthusiasm and record of mentoring made her an ideal leader.
“She has fantastic connections in the United States and abroad,” said Shelley Rigger, Brown Professor of Political Science. “She’s somebody who can counsel students not only how to spend their time abroad, but how to develop themselves for professional careers.
“She knows people everywhere and that is a huge advantage for our students. She can leverage all that experience and knowledge for a generation that’s just getting started.”
Search committee member Julia Knoerr ’21 agreed.
“What really stood out to me was her passion for mentoring,” Knoerr said. “She’s someone students will be comfortable talking to. She’s very warm and welcoming and seems to care a lot. She is also excited about what she’ll be doing and what she’s done in the past.”
Road Less Traveled
Zimmerman says she was born into wanderlust.
Her father served in the Pacific during World War II. Upon returning, he bought a motorcycle and traveled through Mexico and Central America. Her mother traveled the world through the books she devoured in the library of her small midwestern farm town.
“My mom was the most avid reader I have ever known and really gave us our love for reading,” Zimmerman said.
Her parents sold their dairy farm and moved to St. Louis when she and her siblings were young.
Her mother became a librarian and her dad had jobs ranging from farmer to stockbroker to hospital janitor.
Through books Zimmerman developed a fascination with other countries and in high school spent a summer abroad as an exchange student in Switzerland. Her older sister was the first in the family to go to college and studied abroad as a Fulbright scholar in what’s in Sri Lanka.
At Macalester College, Zimmerman majored in international studies and developed a propensity for foreign languages -- setting her up for future proficiency in French, Brazilian Portuguese and Arabic. With financial aid, she spent her junior year abroad at Cambridge University in England.
After graduation and a year in banking she applied to graduate school and took the Foreign Service exam but failed. “Everybody fails the first time,” she said.
She finished graduate school at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, passed the Foreign Service exam on her second try, and moved to Mali, Africa for her first assignment.
“It was like stepping back in time. There were two buildings in the country with elevators and only one worked,” she said. “It was so peaceful then. Sadly, it’s not anymore. Back then the biggest safety threats were road accidents and petty banditry. You could travel anywhere.
“We would show up and camp with villagers. People were so exceedingly kind, generous and hospitable. The differences were so stark that it made what you had in common so real, regardless of our backgrounds or circumstances.”
Other assignments included Brazil, Tunisia, Tel Aviv, the Gaza Strip and Cyprus, interspersed with positions in Washington, D.C.
Jillian Burns ’86 met Zimmerman in 1997 when both were Foreign Service officers studying Arabic for Middle East assignments.
“I was immediately impressed by her love of different cultures and her deep understanding of the Middle East. I found her inspiring, and she made me feel much more comfortable about my assignment to Jordan,” Burns said. “The friendship we formed helped me a lot.
“She was the first person I turned to for career advice after I retired from the Foreign Service.”
At Davidson, Burns went through the Dean Rusk program when former United States Ambassador Jack Perry was director. She said Perry influenced her own decision to join the Foreign Service.
“I drew inspiration from Ambassador Perry in college, then I drew inspiration from Jane in my career,” Burns said. “Now Jane can inspire a new generation.”
Zimmerman’s Middle East expertise led to one of her biggest career challenges. In 2006, she served as a crisis leader in Cyprus when violence between Lebanon and Israel escalated, jeopardizing the safety of more than 15,000 Americans there.
She oversaw their evacuation via Cyprus, which included creating an emergency shelter -- effectively a refugee camp for Americans -- on the site of commercial fairgrounds. The exhibition halls held thousands of cots, first aid stations, portable showers and bathrooms and air-conditioned rest and recreational areas.
“It was a life or death situation for our own citizens and we all helped each other out,” she said. “Our job was to help our fellow citizens -- that comes before everything else for any U.S. embassy.
“Before the crisis, our Embassy team -- Americans and Cypriots alike -- had formed these really deep relationships and developed respect and confidence in one another. That proved critical in our response.”
What could have been even more traumatic for the Americans ended up being a fond memory for many.
Diplomats, Marines and embassy workers organized games, movies and field trips for the children. When an evacuation flight was delayed, a Drug Enforcement Agency agent used his cellphone and credit card to refuel a bus full of anxious evacuees and have pizza delivered on board while leading them in a singalong.
“We often had kids crying because they didn’t want to leave,” Zimmerman said of the makeshift camp. “In a word, it was epic.“
She retired from the State Department in 2013 and immediately joined the American Red Cross as its executive director of international policy and external affairs. There, she oversaw policy and relations with other humanitarian organizations.
She expanded relief programs for families separated while trying to cross the United States southern border as well as people suffering after natural disasters, such as Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013 and the Nepal earthquake in 2015.
During a 2014 Red Cross and Red Crescent mission, she saw Arabs and Jews volunteering side-by-side in Israel. Palestinian Red Crescent volunteers risked their lives under fire to provide first aid and transport the sick and wounded to hospitals.
At home and abroad, she met many grateful recipients of previous Red Cross aid helping the newest disaster survivors.
“Many Red Cross volunteers are people in minimum wage jobs who could be using their time to work a second or third job to make more money for their own families. Instead they’re out there volunteering 12 to 20 hours a week helping out other disaster victims,” she said. “When you see how many people are like that, it’s inspiring.
“It takes a lot of courage and strength to live those humanitarian principles.”
Zimmerman most recently served as executive director of The American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE). ARCE represents more than 40 research institutes and 1,100 members exploring Egypt’s history and cultural heritage.
She was based in the Washington, D.C., area with her husband, John, who shares her passion for cultural heritage and serves as a historical interpreter at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
They’ll keep their home there and take turns driving to see each other. Along the way, they’ll drive past -- (and if invited stop) -- in Blacksburg, Virginia, where their son, Jack, will be a first-year engineering student at Virginia Tech.
Pepper, the family dog, will likely divide her time between Davidson and Washington.
Pepper is a diplomat herself: She and Zimmerman volunteer as a therapy dog team. They regularly visit hospital patients, domestic violence survivors and incarcerated juveniles.
“I love seeing and meeting people through her eyes,” Zimmerman said. “Pepper the Dog doesn’t judge. Everybody is equal. She is so sweet, she doesn’t do any tricks, she just gives and receives love.”
Fortunately, Pepper enjoys long car rides.
“She’s very Zen,” Zimmerman said. “Probably the hardest adjustment will be for my husband, who’s about to send his wife and son off to college at the same time.”
- June 20, 2019
Dean Rusk International Studies Program