If you looked at a list of important world events in the 21st century, it would be difficult to find one that didn’t involve Melissa Lan (PPS ’01).
As the Consul General to Wuhan, China, Lan now serves U.S. interests in China at a time when the relationship between the two nations is often front-page news. But front-page news is where Lan has worked her career since graduation.
Her time at Sanford would be familiar to many students. She enjoyed the warm weather of Durham (having grown up in Michigan) and loved attending Duke basketball games as a self-avowed “Cameron Crazie.”
Lan’s career after Duke was supposed to start in Washington, D.C., like many other public policy students. During the summer between junior and senior year, Lan applied for an internship with the State Department. She had always been globally focused, and the State Department offered an avenue into service that felt like a perfect match.
“Shortly after (applying for the internship), I get this phone call from the State Department that says, can you be in China in 14 hours? You have the language skills, and we think you would be the perfect fit.”
For many of us who came into service at that time, I think the drive to serve is especially strong. We stand for all the best of the American dream, and we really mean that.
Consul General Melissa Lan
Starting a career on one of America’s darkest days
That summer in China led to an internship in D.C. the following year. Lan arrived in D.C. in the Fall of 2001, just on the precipice of her first front-page event.
“On 9/11, I was on the Hill as an intern at the time. The day after, not all the staff were able to return immediately. Only two interns came back into the office the next day, and with all hands needed, I was told to help the legislative assistants draft one of the first terrorist watchlist bills. I remember thinking, ‘I’m not 21 yet, I just graduated from Duke, and I am helping write one of the first drafts of one of the most pivotal legislative pieces in history. Oh my gosh.’ As a Sanford graduate, someone who had prepped for four years to be in public policy. Suddenly I was there. So, I felt both a sense of great responsibility and trepidation. Of course, as a recent graduate, I thought this is exactly what I hoped to be doing, right?”
That day galvanized Lan’s desire to serve the United States on the world stage.
“For many of us who came into service at that time, I think the drive to serve is especially strong. We stand for all the best of the American dream, and we really mean that.”
Beijing Olympics and a Meeting with Coach K
The State Department quickly noticed her talent for language and global focus. Her journey through history had gone global.
“In the State Department, we have something called worldwide availability. We are worldwide. I started in East Asia. They took into account my linguistic background (I knew Chinese) and gave me Korean to learn as well. That point in my career was about big policy issues that were all very steady state traditional diplomacy.”
In 2008, Lan got to use those talents in one of the most visible diplomatic traditions, the summer Olympics. As the U.S. Embassy Beijing 2008 Olympics Coordinator, Lan worked to coordinate a delegation that included then-President George W. Bush as well as his father and former President George H.W. Bush. The U.S. delegation of athletes and journalists was also the largest of any visiting country, with thousands of personnel and tens of thousands of American visitors.
Her time in the State Department had prepared her well for this moment, but her time as a “Cameron Crazie” made for a memorable moment with Coach K.
2008 was the year of the “Redeem Team” for the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team. Coach Mike Krzyzewski (after having already won three NCAA championships with Duke) was called upon to return the U.S. team to its former glory. Anticipation was high for a team that included superstars LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Duke alum Carlos Boozer, among others.
“We were invited to one of the early games, and everybody in the crowd is screaming ‘Kobe! Kobe! Kobe!’ This one little voice in the audience goes, ‘COACH K!’ Coach K turns around and gives this look like, ‘Who in the heck would be calling my name?’
I went to see him at a dinner afterward, and he said, ‘You were the one screaming, weren’t you? I can spot a Cameron Crazie anywhere in the world.’”
Historical Events in 21st Century Middle East
After that experience and many others in her career in Asia, the State Department felt it was time for her next step in serving the United States abroad.
“The State Department called me to figure out my next role. They said, ‘you’re pretty good at languages; why don't you learn Arabic?’
I said why not? Worldwide availability, right?”
Shortly after being assigned to her role at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, her coordination skill was put to work on a new challenge.
“I once again was working on things that started becoming front-page news. I was in Lebanon right at the beginning of the Syrian crisis. At the time, that was one of the biggest refugee crises in the world. I would work with Syria through various lenses over the next few assignments. Then I would work on Yemen and Afghanistan as well.”
Helping refugees would be a prominent part of her career.
“In Afghanistan, the evacuation went from one of the saddest moments of my career to one of my proudest. We were working on what we called “Operation Allies Return Home.” We brought back the Afghan refugees to Washington to the Dulles Expos Center. Nobody was given much time to put this all together, and we received anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 Afghan refugees of all ages daily. That was more than any other country. It was amazing if you looked around at the people serving there at Dulles. We had soldiers, USAID, FEMA… we called everybody. The State Department even did an all-call for volunteers to the entire federal government. Who speaks Dari? Who knows how to handle vaccinations on a mass scale? Some local doctors have never even seen a measles outbreak before. In this case, there is no medical record for somebody fleeing Afghanistan. The entire situation took massive coordination.
A lot of public policy tends to be writing policy and implementation on a very high level. So, for me to do something like that was very much person-to-person, that is traditional diplomacy and that means so much to me.”
We believe in government service. We believe in the values that America stands for. I don’t mean to be at these historical points, but I’ve always been globally focused.
Her Career today shaped by her time at Sanford
Today she serves as the Consul General of the United States in Wuhan, China. In that role, she helps American citizens and promotes cultural programs and exchanges that enrich the relationship between the United States and China. First established in 1861, the Wuhan consulate is an important place in diplomatic history and serves as one of just four U.S. consulates (as well as the U.S. Embassy) within the country.
Consul General Lan now serves Americans in various ways, assisting American citizens in China, providing visas to American travelers and working to provide resources to thousands every year. Amidst that valuable work, she still looks back to her own origins of working in public policy.
“When I studied at Duke, Sanford was trying to encourage all its public policy graduates to go and do something that is public service oriented. It forced students to think, why am I getting this public policy degree?
Today when I look at intern applications, I purposely look for people who showcase the beauty of the American dream.
We like to say, these events you see on the front page of newspapers around the world? We teach you the skillsets you need, but we look for certain characteristics. An open mind to new cultures, people, languages, and a willingness to learn and to be adventurous.
We believe in government service. We believe in the values that America stands for. I don’t mean to be at these historical points, but I’ve always been globally focused.”
Sign up for our monthly Alumni Newsletter
This article was posted in the Sanford Alumni Memo, to stay informed about Sanford alumni events, news and profiles email Alex Dodds firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up.