Alumna Michelle Paulin Serves in Diplomatic Role at Tokyo Olympics

Michelle Paulin ('98). (Courtesy U.S. State Department)
March 17, 2021
By Hunter Hauser (’23)

SPOKANE, Wash. — Michelle “Missy” Paulin (’98), who earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature and a minor in philosophy from Gonzaga University, is delighted to be working in Tokyo where she is serving as a U.S. diplomat working on the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer.

Paulin, originally from New Plymouth, Idaho, started her adventurous career in the U.S. Foreign Service in 2012. She currently serves as the unit lead for the Olympic Coordination Office for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympics games.

Michelle Paulin ('98). (Courtesy U.S. State Department)

Michelle Paulin at the entrance to Air Force One. (Photo courtesy U.S. State Department)

“This has been a historic Olympic Games, and I am literally in the front seat, watching history happen,” Paulin said, adding that she began as the deputy in 2019 and was promoted to lead in 2020. In her current position, she liaises externally with the Tokyo Olympic Committee, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, and other embassies, and also coordinates internally with federal law enforcement, services to American citizens overseas, and the U.S. military.

Even NASA has a part in this Olympics, as the NASA attaché in Tokyo collaborates with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), which plans to send messages to Olympic torchbearers from space.

“Sometimes this job feels like a dream. During the 2019 Junior World Rowing Championships in Tokyo, I met up with former Gonzaga rowing coach Matt Imes, whom I had not seen in 24 years. I’ve met world champions, sat in planning sessions with ministers and directors, and had lunch with former Olympians. I even got to personally watch the president step out of Air Force One. It’s a unique opportunity that comes around once in a career,” said Paulin. “Normally I work in embassy management, supporting other officers. In my next position, for example, I will be CFO and head of human resources for an embassy in Armenia, and that’s great — I’m looking forward to it and I know I will love that job too. Supporting the Olympics, however, has just been this amazing experience. This is why I joined the Foreign Service — you never know what job you might do next.”

Michelle Paulin ('98). (Courtesy U.S. State Department)
Michelle Paulin in Tokyo. (Photo courtesy U.S. State Department)
Foreign Service officers like Paulin make up the U.S. Diplomatic Corps, currently about 13,800 strong, deployed to embassies worldwide and employed by the U.S. Department of State, a federal agency under the executive branch charged with representing U.S. interests abroad. The Foreign Service was created in 1924 via the Rogers Act, which set up a career system and established a diplomatic corps. Previous to 1924, U.S. diplomacy was limited to those with the wealth and resources to live abroad on their own. 

U.S. diplomats promote democratic values and further U.S. interests abroad, which can range from trade talks to encouraging rule of law. Similar to the U.S. military officer corps, diplomats serve in dangerous and difficult places, move every 2-4 years, and handle risks associated with the job — from amoebic dysentery from local sanitary conditions to protests that get out of hand.

“I am so proud to serve my country,” said Paulin. “Even though it is not as well-known as military service, I have no doubts that my Foreign Service colleagues are patriots. We serve in a different way, but I go to sleep at night knowing my work saves lives as we promote peace and democratic values, supporting our service members, our citizens living and traveling abroad, and our taxpayers.”

Michelle Paulin ('98) and colleagues. (Courtesy U.S. State Department)
Michelle Paulin with U.S. Air Force One pilots. (Photo courtesy U.S. State Department)
Before coming to Tokyo, Paulin served full tours in Barbados, Brazil and Washington, D.C., as well as shorter temporary duty positions in Jamaica and Lebanon. From managing a $5 million procurement budget in one country to assisting Americans in trouble overseas in another, each job is unique. 

“I have been in the State Department nearly 10 years and have yet to do the same job twice,” Paulin said. “I would seriously encourage Gonzaga grads who are interested in serving their country to consider taking the Foreign Service exam. The Foreign Service should represent all Americans, and I know GU grads, with Gonzaga’s emphasis on service, would be ideal candidates.”

Admission to the Foreign Service is obtained via a written exam, followed by an essay and a day of interviews and assessments. The State Department has its own college-like campus in Northern Virginia to train new diplomats to carry democracy and promote U.S. interests worldwide.

Paulin notes the holistic Jesuit education she received at Gonzaga prepared her for the complex, challenging and dynamic work of a U.S. diplomat, and encourages Gonzaga graduates to consider diplomacy as a career path.

“The rigor of all my classes at Gonzaga, my time as a student senator, my experience being on the rowing team and the friendships and relationships I made during my time as a student all contributed to my success in life,” she said. “My English and philosophy professors were tough, but it prepared me to work alongside Ivy League graduates, and that, more than the topics themselves, was invaluable experience. I cannot emphasize enough that critical thinking and Gonzaga’s required philosophy courses made my life foundation and have had a lasting impact on me, on my life, and made me a better human being.”

Paulin is happy to talk to students interested in the Foreign Service as a career, or just to chat about life abroad as a single mother of two teenage children.

“This life isn’t easy and isn’t for everyone, but I feel enormously lucky. I’m grateful for everything I have, and the opportunities I’ve been granted, starting with the scholarship that started my life as a GU student,” she said.

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