Helen (Holly) Lovejoy ’68 is a retired Foreign Service officer with the U.S. Department of State and has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Chicago, and hopes to follow it with a doctorate in Turkic linguistics.
In 1967, during the summer between my junior and senior years at USM, I participated in an exchange program and lived in Gaziantep, Turkey. It was very different from any place I had ever been before. The family that I lived with was so warm and welcoming, and I felt very happy and peaceful there. My ears and brain absorbed the Turkish language—still my favorite language to hear and speak. It’s full of beautiful and expressive vowels and is an ideal language for poetry and novels. Looking back, that two-month visit truly reset the focus for my entire life.
I continued my study of Turkish and other near-Eastern languages at Princeton, where I graduated in 1972 with a degree in near-Eastern studies. I had chosen my path, and focused my academic and professional careers around the Middle East and Turkey. After graduation, I headed to Morocco as a Peace Corps volunteer, where I taught English in a high school and relished the chance to learn Moroccan Arabic. But unlike in Turkey, I did not feel welcome in Morocco. Little boys threw stones at me, reflecting the public disapproval of any single, Western woman who would choose to live in the Middle East alone.
My 20s were a decade of travel, exploration, and education—still focused on the Middle East—but I did not give up on my lifelong dream to be a Foreign Service officer. It took me 10 years and three attempts, but I passed the Foreign Service exams (both written and oral) and the interview process, and joined the Foreign Service in 1989 at age 39. For my first tour I was sent to Tel Aviv in the run-up to Desert Storm, an exciting time to be in Israel. I served as a staff aid to the U.S. ambassador to Israel, and was fascinated to observe the buildup of tension in the region before the first Gulf War. I met my former husband, who was sent to Israel as a patriot soldier with the U.S. Army, and married him in Jerusalem in 1991. (My two children are some of the few who can rightly claim that they were born because of Saddam Hussein!) From Israel, my family and I traveled to Turkey, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Cyprus, Turkmenistan, Egypt, and Jordan for various postings until 2013, when we returned to Washington, D.C.
My life has not taken an ordinary route—marrying at 41, bearing healthy children at 42 and 44 and raising them in the Middle East—but it has come full circle and brought me back to the Midwest. I turned 65 in 2015, which is the mandatory retirement age for Foreign Service officers, and decided to finish the doctorate I started decades ago. While my career has been challenging, I have experienced life in many countries and have had the joy of making friends with many people of different nationalities. Ultimately, I strongly believe in the goodness of people and the importance of being kind to one another—two beliefs ingrained in me since my childhood in Milwaukee.
Helen (Holly) Lovejoy ’68 On…
Her undergraduate education:
After graduating from USM I went to Smith College for two years. But Smith did not offer any degrees in Turkish or Middle Eastern languages, so I looked around for somewhere I could transfer to. The summer after my sophomore year I received a national defense language fellowship to study Turkish at Columbia University, and from there I went right on to Princeton. I ended up transferring fully to Princeton because I loved the studies and the teachers; they were wonderful. I loved the education. I majored in near-Eastern studies and wrote a thesis on the Turkish civil code of 1926—its effect and its reception in rural society in Turkey.
Working on an archeological dig in Syria:
My mother had sent me an article about an archeological dig that the Milwaukee Public Museum and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee were jointly sponsored in Syria, in 1977. It was a salvage archeological project right on the Euphrates. So I volunteered, and there I was. I went there for two summers and I loved it. I loved archeology and living in a little adobe hut.
The project was on a site from the middle bronze age, about 1200 B.C. They were looking for a lot of tablets similar to what a group of Italians had found at a nearby site excavated earlier. We didn’t find a lot of tablets but we did find a lot of artifacts. It was really exciting. We also did reconstruction of the pottery in the afternoon, after digging in the morning from about 4 a.m. until noon. It was a wonderful experience.
Traveling the world as a tour guide:
After the archeological dig I went to New York and got a job as a tour guide, which I had wanted to do for a long time. The tour company was a Greek-owned company and we went all over the world. I gave tours of archeological sites in Athens, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, and I also went to the Far East, South America, Galapagos, and the British Isles, a lot of it on cruise ships. I did that for two years and saw a lot of the world, but I came back to Washington, D.C. because I wanted to focus on getting into the Foreign Service.