Harriet Isom

Former U.S. Ambassador,
Mills College, Class of 1958
Harriet Isom Headshot

​​Liberal arts have been the cornerstone of my life! When I reflect on my education at Mills College, I can only applaud the results. Imagine what a daunting goal I had set for myself when I left rural eastern Oregon in the 1950s, dreaming of working for either the UN or the State Department. I had no idea how dim my chances were, particularly for a woman in that era.

I credit the way Mills College and its professors exposed me to history, sociology, government, philosophy, literature, and foreign languages—and to diverse teachers and students as well as multi-cultural thinking. A Mexican student at Mills invited me to her home in Mexico City for two summers, which was a great learning experience.
I am most grateful to the president of Mills at the time, Lynn White, with his wise counsel for us to break out of the eggshell of clichés, prejudices, and beliefs of our childhood and reformulate our adult outlook.
Mills’ professors recommended my graduate studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. From there I passed—amazingly, as I look back—the written and oral State Department exams and joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1961. I was fortunate because the State Department was just then newly accepting a few token women as career foreign service officers, and most of us came from women’s liberal arts colleges.
The liberal arts exposure served me well in developing the understanding I needed of the countries and peoples of Asia and Africa where I served during my 35-year career in the State Department. I opted to work in emerging countries—Malaysia, Indonesia (twice), Niger, Burundi, Laos, Benin, and Cameroon, serving as U.S. ambassador in the last three. When I worked in the Department of State in the 1980s, I was the first woman director of Korean affairs.
Since retiring in 1996 and opting to return to my roots on my family ranch in eastern Oregon, that same liberal arts education has shaped my interest in community affairs—art, music, civic groups, support for aiding the underprivileged and, of course, travel and writing on foreign affairs.
I believe that the lesson of a liberal arts education is much broader than just my own personal story. I see the liberal arts as a necessary part of everyone’s education, no matter the major. It is what helps us to forge our adult ability to reason and reflect and, very importantly, to interact with people and communities wherever we are. ​

Harriet Isom was a career foreign service officer from 1961 to 1996, assigned to embassies in Asia and Africa. During her last decade in the Foreign Service, she served as U.S. ambassador to Laos, Benin, and Cameroon.
She grew up on her family ranch near Pendleton, Oregon and earned her BA in history and government in 1958 from Mills College in Oakland, California. She has a master’s degree in international law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Massachusetts.
Post-Foreign Service, Isom enjoys her life back in Oregon as a “gentlewoman farmer,” writing and speaking on foreign affairs, traveling extensively, and participating in the many volunteer activities available at the local and state level. She has received several awards for Oregon women of distinction.