UCLA grad returns to share experience on the ground in Afghanistan
After four years with the U.S. Foreign Service, Erin Rattazzi, BA '02, advises students to take advantage of every possible opportunity to learn more about the world and their place in it.
"Although there are lots of demands on your time while you’re here, I think you have to think outside of the bubble that is college and think about what kind of person you want to be.”
On September 11, 2001, Erin Rattazzi was in the midst of training to become a residence assistant at UCLA. However, her focus, like that of Americans across the country and the global community at large, quickly shifted as she learned of the terror attacks that had unfolded in New York City, Arlington, Virginia, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, that morning.
Fast forward nearly 11 years, and Rattazzi, who graduated with degrees in English and history in 2002, is sitting at the front of Professor Stephen Commins' senior undergraduate research seminar course on conflict and development sharing her insights as an assistant information officer with the U.S. Department of State and speaking about the strides that have been made in Afghanistan since American military forces moved into the region post 9/11, including increased educational opportunities for children, especially girls; reduced maternal mortality rates; and improved access to health care for those living in rural areas.
“The places I get to see and the things I get to do are bar none,” she says. “You don’t really get to do these things in most careers.”
She also discussed the dangers of working in a war zone, including two attacks on the U.S. Embassy that happened while she worked in Kabul.
Her visit was coordinated by the U.S. Department of State, as part of its Hometown Diplomat program, and the UCLA International Visitors Bureau, which is part of the UCLA International Institute, which is dedicated to advancing global teaching, research and engagement at UCLA.
“It’s a really interesting time to be there right now as we’re witnessing the pre-transition process,” says Rattazzi, who was just two days back on American soil after spending three years in Vietnam and a year in Afghanistan. “The country is not going to heal overnight, but if not for our work there it wouldn’t have the hope and optimism that is does now.”
She explained that despite the reduction — and eventual removal — of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, there will still be a strong American civilian presence in the country. “Even though we’re transitioning out, we are committed to Afghanistan. It’s an enduring partnership.”
Following graduation from UCLA, Rattazzi earned a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in justice and transformation, specializing in human rights, at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. She went on to work for Human Rights Watch for five years before joining the State Department in 2008.
Her first Foreign Service assignment was in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where she performed consular work in one of the busiest immigrant visa sections in the world and worked on human rights issues. Her job in Afghanistan entailed coordinating press interview, giving interviews, preparing talking points, speech writing and ensuring that visits by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, she visited twice during Rattazzi’s time there, and President Barack Obama, who visited once, go smoothly. Her upcoming assignment is in Washington, D.C., where she will work on issues related to Sudan and South Sudan.
After answering questions from students, Rattazzi visited one of her favorite spots on campus, the Murphy Sculpture Garden, where she spoke passionately about a campaign against gender violence that she worked to produced last year, calling it one of the highlights of her career, thus far. The television and radio campaign, for which she wrote a series of 16 public service announcements, featured some prominent Afghans, including Fawzia Koofi, Afghanistan's first female second deputy speaker of parliament, champion karate athlete Wahid Ahmad Joya, and Khatol Mohammadzai Zai, the country’s first female military general.
“I met some of the most amazing women – and men – who were courageous enough to speak out,” says Rattazzi, who was involved with Take Back the Night and the UCLA Clothesline Project during her years here.
She says her interests in international relations and world travel were ignited as a result of travel study opportunities that took her to England, South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.
“They really fueled my desire to travel and see other parts of the world.”
International education and understanding is an importat aspect of becoming a well-rounded person, she says, adding that students should strongly consider taking a class outside of their specialized areas of study and learning another language or two, something she says that she regrets not doing while in university. Language was something she had to study insensively as a requirement of her job, she says. In addition to English and Spanish, she now speaks fluent Vietnamese and has gained some competancy in Urdu.
She also encourages students to take advantage of every possible opportunity to learn more about the world and their place in it.
“UCLA is such a great school, and you have such a wide range of classes and some of the best professors in the world. I loved my time here. I didn’t want to leave when I graduated. Although there are lots of demands on your time while you’re here, I think you have to think outside of the bubble that is college and think about what kind of person you want to be.”
As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, many employers are seeking candidates who have international experience, competancy in foreign languages and an understanding of the dynamics of politics and international relations. The UCLA International Institute offers a variety of graduate and undergraduate interdepartmental degree programs, education abroad options, funding opportunities, foreign language and area studies fellowships, internships and free public events for those interested in learning more about the world and gaining additional skills that will help them compete in competative career markets. In addition, UCLA offers a wide variety of foreign language courses.