While coaching United States armed forces majors and lieutenant colonels recently through national security issues, Ambassador Mary Carlin Yates noted that the group was “trying to save the world in one fell swoop.”
She told them, “You have to do it a piece at a time.”
That’s how Yates has done her best for her international community, her country, and her alma mater, Oregon State University – one piece at a time.
Yates began her professional life by teaching high school and working to explain the wider world to American students. She went on to build a 32-year diplomatic career with the US Department of State, serving across Africa, Europe, and Asia. She was Ambassador to the Republic of Burundi and the Republic of Ghana and the first civilian to serve as deputy to a US military commander, in the Africa Command. She held appointments under three presidents, including working on the National Security Council as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for African Affairs in the Obama administration.
Since 2012, she has been in her version of retirement, which has meant continued engagement in international security issues as an independent consultant and service on the Oregon State University Honors College Board of Regents and OSU Foundation Board of Trustees.
Yates attributes her passion for education and her commitment to students to her early role models.
“My grandmother graduated college in 1904 when that was rare for women. My mother graduated from Pacific University in the 1930s. They were truly educational inspirations,” Yates says.
Her mother began teaching high school in Oregon in a houseboat—where she was often paid in barter like chickens –and she brought education to the fore for Yates growing up.
“When we sat down to dinner, we had discussions, and we had the encyclopedia, the dictionary, and the Book of Knowledge nearby; we would get up and look up things. That’s how she taught us,” Yates said.
When Yates came to Oregon State as an undergraduate, doors began to open up for her intellectually and emotionally. She found classes that challenged her to expand her perspective on the world and on her own future, and her sorority provided a supportive community of learners and mentors.
“We would study together in groups at the Kappa Kappa Gamma House,” she says. “That nurtured me and helped me to be more academic. The older students were so inspiring. Women at that time typically went into teaching or nursing. But in this sorority, one was headed to engineering and one to medicine. One was even going to be a lawyer, which was so rare. Kappa sisters would say to me, ‘You may like this class’ – which would get me to explore new fields.”
On a friend’s recommendation, Yates enrolled in “Religions of the World.” It was a pivotal moment.
“The class made me far more tolerant and helped me feel connected internationally. I still have the textbook.”
Her passion for new experiences and global connection eventually drew her to the Foreign Service. As she says, “Take the hard job. Wonderful things will happen. In a master’s program in Japan, the aperture of my world opened up.” In order to qualify for the diplomatic corps, she took on the challenge of learning Korean.
In 2007, Yates was invited back to her alma mater to give the commencement speech. That’s when Joe Hendricks, the founding dean of the HC, first introduced her to the Honors College.
“At first, my reaction was that I didn’t want to dedicate a scholarship for the elite,” Yates says. “But I found out the HC has every demographic. It’s like having a Harvard or a Stanford inside Oregon State!”
She established the Barbara Carlin and Mary Carlin Yates HC Scholarship in tribute to her mother as an educator.
“The Honors College sent a scrapbook after the first year of the things the students were doing, and my mother and I went through it together,” Yates says. “I have been so impressed. The education these kids are getting, my goodness,” Yates says. “When I go back and sit in on Honors classes, I see that the professors force students to think and to defend their point of view, which is what you need in the real world.
“A highlight for me is when a student has traveled overseas for the first time. I can relate to their excitement,” Yates says. “We’ve both learned that we are lucky and privileged to be US citizens.”
As a member of the HC Board of Regents since 2012, Yates has made it a point to encourage the college to build its internal diversity and the range of its connections to the world outside the university.
“You have to educate yourself that we are not the center of the universe,” Yates says. “Keep opening doors, because you have no idea where they will lead.”