SOAS University of London

Ian Sargeant

SOAS was fundamental to the success of all that followed, arming me with the skill set needed to penetrate foreign cultures through understanding and language

Why did you choose SOAS as the place to study?

It was pure serendipity, obliged upon me by Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service. I had taken a summer vacation job at the FCO while waiting to go up to UEA at Norwich to pursue development studies, at a time (very different from today) when the government was desperate to recruit and retain staff so the FCO HR went down almost on bended knee to get me to stay on, offering to pay me a salary to study, instead of the usual small grant (there were no loans in those days!) : they would fully sponsor me if I signed up for one of their programmes, so I chose south east asian studies, and as SOAS was then, and still is now, the best place to study oriental culture and languages, my links with SOAS were forged.

What do you do now and what practical skills did you gain from SOAS to prepare you for this?

I now work in the international travel consultancy field as a global tour manager, travelling to all parts of the world, seeking new developments in the tourism business, but for 40 years I worked as a diplomat in our embassies abroad, working on every continent, in every circumstance and in every FCO discipline: political, economic, commercial, consular, nationality and immigration, to a level of understanding not often afforded to visiting tourists or businessmen. SOAS was fundamental to the success of all that followed, arming me with the skill set needed to penetrate foreign cultures through understanding and language. In diplomacy it is helpful to be able to master language quickly at a usable level, by asking the right questions and building vocabulary. Understanding culture is also crucial. SOAS is highly regarded in diplomatic circles and instantly recognized.

What would be a seminal moment, event, achievement, academic person during your time at the School?

SOAS teaching was excellent : I was the only student at the time in my year so I enjoyed one-to-one instruction from gifted lecturer Peter Bee for language, and his head of department Professor Simmonds for culture and history. Strange as it may seem, there was little knowledge of Thailand among the general UK public in those days, 40 years ago, and certainly no Thai restaurant on every street corner and in every town as there is now. This was, then, pioneering stuff !

What attracted you to the diplomatic service and in what ways has it lived up to your expectations?

Travel, and the opportunity to influence foreign policy through action based on careful analysis and recommendation. I had always been interested in politics and global developments so this was a natural progression.

What were some of the challenges you faced as a diplomat and how did you resolve them?

Dealing with the public side of diplomacy is the most demanding, as it includes a welfare role for people who are truly destitute and will come to the embassy when at their most desperate. Examples of particularly difficult tasks include, as our government’s representative, attending a grim autopsy of a suspected murder victim; negotiating with violent kidnappers for the release of tortured victims; and coming under fire one lunchtime while alone and on duty in one of our small embassies in central America : taking refuge under the ambassador’s heavy oak table as the bombs and bullets rained down saved my skin on that occasion : not a normal 9-5 job at all !!

What would you advise any budding diplomats ? What are some of the essential skills or attributes that are important to your role?

Be as IT literate as possible, including good fast typing skills. Be ready for adventure and the unexpected. Try to remain calm at all times and try not to stress too much; situations will almost certainly change or be resolved, and adaptability is key. Network unashamedly, and most importantly, enjoy the novel and unfamiliar. Travel really is the university of Life ! All government targets grow relentlessly (and the FCO is not excepted) so be prepared to deal quickly with increasing demand, and always find ways to prioritize.

What three words symbolize the School’s next 100 years?

Expansion (phenomenal), Grounding (unbeatable) and Happiness (of the student body)