By Ann Nordby
When talking to Humphrey School students and faculty about Diplomat-in-Residence Mary Curtin, the word they use most is "connection."
True to her lifelong vocation as a diplomat and a scholar, Curtin builds bridges between people around the world.
After a decade spent teaching and guiding students with an interest in global policy, Curtin is retiring from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs this summer.
Shortly after her arrival at the School in 2013, she was asked to play a leading role in developing plans for a new Master of Human Rights (MHR) degree. Today, the MHR is a well-established joint program of the Humphrey School and the College of Liberal Arts. MHR students take courses from both colleges, which gives them broad flexibility of topic areas, with a core expertise in policy.
In addition to teaching courses in foreign policy and diplomacy, Curtin has served as chair of the Humphrey School’s global policy area for several years. One of her goals has been to raise the School’s profile and reputation for its expertise in that area. As diplomat-in-residence, she works with students across Humphrey School master's degree programs.
"Mary is the glue that has held together a focus on globally engaged work at the Humphrey School," said Eric Schwartz, the School's former dean who brought Curtin here.
Looking back, Curtin says from the beginning, she knew she would be building on the U of M's strengths. "I'm a native Minnesotan. The Humphrey School has a reputation not just for teaching and research, but as a place where the public and students engage on international issues," Curtin said.
She brought to the Humphrey School 25 years of experience as a Foreign Service officer in the U.S. Department of State, with postings at the U.S. Mission to the European Union in Brussels; as political counselor in Warsaw, Poland; and at missions in Tunisia, Mali, and Chile, as well as Washington, DC.
"I knew that having someone of Mary's experience and caliber would strengthen the national reputation of the Humphrey School, and I think she played a valuable role in doing so," Schwartz said.
Shares her 'address book' with students
With students, Schwartz said Curtin is very approachable, very engaging, and supportive. "In academia, which is traditionally quite hierarchical, people just feel very comfortable around her and it makes an important difference."
Curtin has always focused on ensuring that students gained skills and experiences working in the world of diplomacy. She has shared her rich network of professional contacts with hundreds of Humphrey School students. "She is always willing to open her address book," said Izaak Mendoza (MPP/MBA ‘20).
Alumna Colleen Ryan (MHR '21) wrote her final paper on women in security services in Kosovo's police and military, with Curtin as one of her advisors.
"She connected me with a woman who had led the UN mission in Kosovo. The fact that Mary could connect me with someone who ran an international mission in a country that I was interested in was amazing. It was a really productive conversation for me that I wouldn't have had without Mary's connection," Ryan said.
Ryan actually delivered her final paper remotely from Ukraine in 2021. She now works as a border advisor on Ukraine with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Curtin also arranges hands-on learning experiences for students. Each year, she convenes an International Strategic Crisis Negotiation Exercise at the Humphrey School, together with the U.S. Army War College.
During these weekend-long training events, 45 students tackle a real-world potential crisis together, guided by experienced mentors from the Foreign Service, military, and government.
It's similar to Model United Nations, but much more intense. Working in small groups, each of them representing the interests of a different country or actor, their goal is to make progress on resolving the conflict over two days.
“The students gain an understanding of how global actors function in the midst of a crisis,” said Curtin. “It’s important for them to see the complexity of negotiations involving many different players who are working toward competing goals.”
Mendoza said Curtin invited him to lead one of the teams at the 2022 weekend. Its topic was a clash between Armenia and Azerbaijan. As an aspiring Foreign Service officer, Mendoza said the exercise was highly impactful for him.
"You see the experience of actual negotiations and reaching consensus on a complex issue with others who may disagree with you. It's a true experiential learning experience," he said.
Curtin has developed ways for the broader public to engage on international issues through the University. She has convened dozens of events, at which anyone can hear from and quiz ambassadors, elected officials, and experts on current international issues.
With her extensive Foreign Service experience, Curtin has also been a go-to source for the news media on foreign policy matters like the war in Ukraine, the NATO alliance, and Brexit.
She sees these activities as important ways to connect the world to Minnesota.
As she closes the book on this chapter of her career, Curtin said that’s one of the things she’s most satisfied about: her efforts to connect the broader community to foreign policy. She is also happy that she was able to help a large number of students realize they could play a role in international affairs, even if they didn't originally choose that path.
Curtin says she has learned as much from students as they have from her. "They really push me to think about social justice at home and how it relates to foreign policy," Curtin said. "They are so inspiring."
Curtin says in this, her second retirement, she plans to travel more. “Since I retired from the Foreign Service 10 years ago, I've not done enough traveling," she said.
She also plans to spend more time with her two grown daughters, who live nearby and are among the generation of young people who inspire her.