With a backdrop of blue skies and the last balmy breezes of summer this past Tuesday, September 1st, we had the honor of hosting a fireside chat with Lisa Heller, the newly appointed Minister Counselor of Public Affairs for the American Embassy in Beijing. The event was moderated by Elizabeth Knup, the Chief Representative of the Ford Foundation in China. Collectively they have over 40 years of China experience and fascinating stories to share.
Trailblazing to China
Ms. Heller and Ms. Knup both had a warmth and good humor that drew the audience in as the story of Ms. Heller’s journey from Princeton to China unfolded. Ms. Heller described of her college experience: “Although it’s hard to imagine this now, at the time Princeton discouraged study abroad.” The world and the US were very different then and she was adventurous enough to venture into a China that was unknown to much of the West.
At the tender age of 21, Lisa left New Jersey to teach English in Dalian, China. She described the experience as one of “immediate learning”; she was simultaneously learning to teach and survive in a very foreign place. Not to mention, she was younger than most of her students. Because there were no textbooks, she had to create lessons out of thin air, using traditional calligraphy paper and brushes, which they hung up on the classroom walls each day.
Although Ms. Heller said she enjoyed her time living and working abroad, going back to China wasn’t initially part of her long-term plans. She returned to the US to pursue her dream to help build the next space station. With that initial goal in mind, Ms. Heller started building a career at NASA, later applying to the Foreign Service as an afterthought. As luck would have it, she received two different opportunities on the same day: she could take a position with theU.S. Information Agency (the precursor to the State Department) in Shenyang or the chance to help build the next US space station, presenting a pivotal decision in her life.
Struck with indecision, Ms. Heller asked her boss at NASA for advice. He told her that if she wanted to go abroad, she should do it now: her job working on the space station could wait. In the end, she took the job that “no one else wanted” in Shenyang, met and married a Sinologist, and continued her work in the State Department. She has since served in countries all over Eastern and Central Asia, with placements in Shenyang, Taipei, Kyiv, Seoul and now Beijing for the third time.
The Importance of Flexible Plans
Elizabeth asked a question on many of our minds: “When you look back, do you have any reflections on how you got from Princeton to here?” Lisa’s response was a bit unexpected. Given the original trajectory of her career, the fact that Ms. Heller ended up in China seemed like a dramatic twist of fate.
“I’m actually a planner,” she said. “At every step along that path I had a plan, but what I found most important was the flexibility to change my plans.”
The idea of being brave enough to change plans you have set for yourself might be some of the best advice we’ve heard yet. Thank you Lisa, for encouraging young China watchers to follow their paths with purpose, and reminding them to have the courage to take an opportunity or challenge that might lead them down an unexpected path.
This event was particularly special for us as both the Ford Foundation and the State Department have played a major role in the creation of Project Pengyou, and have continuously supported us in our mission every step of the way. Without them, Project Pengyou would not be here. Thank you to everyone who attended the event for your curiosity, engagement, and for so many thoughtful questions. Another special thank you to Elizabeth Knup and the Ford Foundation and Lisa Heller and the US Embassy. We are extremely grateful for all you do and your continued support!
See more photo highlights from the event here.
About the Speakers
Lisa Heller has served as Minister Counselor for Public Affairs at the US Embassy in Beijing since July 2015. Ms. Heller is a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and a graduate of Princeton University and the University of Minnesota. She first came to work in China as a teacher at the Dalian Institute of Technology, now the Dalian University of Science and Technology, in 1986. Before returning to China in her first assignment with the Embassy in 1992, she had also worked for the US Environmental Protection Agency and NASA. She has also had additional assignments in Shenyang, Taipei, Beijing (twice), Kyiv, and Seoul.
Elizabeth Knup has led a distinguished career developing stronger ties between China and the rest of the world in the education, not-for-profit, and business sectors. The early part of her career focused on strengthening the capacity of civil society organizations and working on expanding educational opportunities in China. Most recently she served as the Chief Representative of Pearson PLC, one of the world’s foremost education and publishing companies. Her work at Pearson expands on her experiences with Kamsky Associates, the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies, and the National Committee on United States-China Relations. In August of 2013, Knup became the Chinese Representative for the Ford Foundation.
US Embassy, Public Affairs Section manages the US Government’s official information, educational and cultural exchange activities in China. Concurrently, PAS is the official voice of the United States Embassy in China. Through its Information Section, PAS handles all public affairs matters and media relations concerning the Embassy, the United States Government, and it’s policies toward China. The Information Section also assists other agencies and elements of the Embassy in their media activities and programs. This section also prepares and distributes a daily Washington File, press releases and backgrounders on American policy, organizes press conferences, webchats and other media events, and provides timely and useful information to Chinese journalists and China-based foreign correspondents. Journalists may also wish to contact the Foreign Press Center or the Department of State Public Affairs (PA) Office.
The Cultural Section of the PAS coordinates and supports US cultural and educational activities in China. These activities include exchange visitor programs, Fulbright and other educational exchange programs, and lecture programs. The Beijing American Center (BAC) houses a reference service that provides information on U.S. history, society, government and education, and holds regular program & events about these topics, including U.S.- China Fulbright Program, EducationUSA and English Language Program.
Ford Foundation is committed to advancing human welfare. Headquartered in New York City, we make grants in all 50 states and, through 10 regional offices around the world, supporting programs in more than 50 countries. Over the years, our trustees have been drawn from the United States, Latin America, Africa and Asia and have brought experience in business, government, higher education, law, nonprofit management and the civic sector with a diversity of approaches and continuity of purpose. For more than 30 years, the foundation’s China office has been supporting institutions and individuals who work to build a robust, inclusive and equitable society. Today, we help develop a strong social sector that will serve as the foundation for reducing poverty, addressing inequality and creating opportunities for marginalized communities to have a greater voice and contribute to the common good of the society.