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Alumnus Focus: Matt Petit '08 Blends Music, Diplomacy

Matt Petit speaks to 30 Zambian high school music students about jazz history
Petit speaks to 30 Zambian high school music students about jazz history and its importance to U.S. culture and foreign affairs.

As a member of the Foreign Service, Matt Petit '08 has traveled to seven countries over the past six years and has lived in three. Though his packing list is necessarily lean, to each new country he brings with him his wife Abbie, his dog Prithvi, as many U.S. food products as he can and his trombone.

A Plott music scholar at Davidson, Petit pursued a double major in political science and music, and he continues to pursue both interests. For his "day job," he works as a political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Zambia, focused on internal political dynamics and human rights, including prison conditions, rule of law, corruption, equal rights for vulnerable groups, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly. And in his spare time, he practices a little freedom of expression, performing classical and jazz music for official functions and sharing the art form with young Zambians through music-based outreach initiatives.

"Outreach on cultural affairs is not exactly in my job description, but the State [Department] encourages all of us to use our talents and abilities to further U.S. policy in other areas," Petit said. "For me, I do it through music."

In April Petit gave a talk through the Embassy Speakers Bureau to 30 high school music students on jazz history and its importance to U.S. culture and foreign affairs, and as part of his presentation played some jazz music excerpts. He also worked with the embassy to record a jazz history podcast, which was shared with 60 radio stations across the country.

Through jazz outreach, Petit feels like he is sharing with others a piece of the United States-a distinctly American art form. At the same time, distinctly American music forms like jazz, Blues and Hip Hop have rhythmic roots in Africa, he said, and thus provide an outlet for people to discover similarities among seemingly disparate groups.

"I think that the music outreach is every bit as important as everything else I do," Petit said. "I'm showing people that everyone-even people in government jobs-have other sides to them."

Political Motivation

Matt Petit plays jazz excerpts for the embassy’s jazz history podcast
Petit plays jazz excerpts for the embassy’s jazz history podcast.

Petit first discovered the "personal side to politics" himself while taking his first political science class, taught by Prof. Pat Sellers, on the congressional process. 

"I started to see beyond the veneer that seems to exists between the people that you see in government and the rest of us," he said, and the realization that "politicians are people too" was eye-opening.

He went on to take a course on U.S./Latin American relations the first semester of his sophomore year. Prof. Russell Crandall's active engagement with the subject matter, coupled with students' exposure to other experts working in the field, led Petit to consider Foreign Service, he said. He remembers one day when a desk officer for Venezuela talked to the class over the phone:

"I remember thinking, 'I want to be that guy,'" Petit said. "He is the point person for everything."

Petit took the Foreign Service exam in the fall of his senior year and received an offer to start work in May 2008 (but deferred to July). He entered the Service in July 2008 as part of the 140th "A-100" training class and was assigned to a consular tour in Chennai, India, after nearly a year of Tamil language training. Tamil is a language spoken in South India, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Malaysia, among other countries.

Petit spent two years in Chennai processing thousands of non-immigrant visas, all while continuing to play his trombone whenever possible. During his time there he performed several times at the Consul General's residence, and played the Star-Spangled Banner at Independence Day celebrations. He also played in a five-hour master class with local musicians in 2010 in honor of Jazz Appreciation Month.

For his next tour he returned to Washington, D.C., and worked in the State Department's Bureau of African Affairs as a Somalia Desk Officer and later as an Eritrea/Djibouti Desk Officer, working with the U.S. Somalia Unit in Nairobi and embassies in Djibouti and Asmara to analyze, formulate and execute U.S. policy toward those countries. Despite working 70-80 hours a week, he still found time for music, playing in a State Department classical quintet.

"Doing something I enjoy creatively helps me perform better in all areas of life," he said.

In 2013, he moved to Zambia to take on the political officer job he holds currently.

"I'm now doing the sort of work I hope to be doing for the rest of my career," he said.