Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Alumnus appointed Ambassador to Vietnam
Michael Michalak, CAS ’68, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, was recently honored with the Distinguished Alumni Service Award. The Distinguished Alumni Service Award is Oakland’s highest alumni honor, recognizing peerless volunteer leadership in service to OU. Michalak has been an important part of the annual Woodcock Legacy Seminar since it began in 1993. He also assists OU students who study abroad through the Guizhou exchange program.
|U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Michael Michalak practices "food diplomacy" at a recent American food festival in Vietnam.|
Michalak was sworn in as Ambassador to Vietnam in August. “Being named Ambassador to Vietnam was the greatest thrill of my life and I can assure you that this is the best job in the Foreign Service,” he said. “This is the job to which I have aspired since I joined the service. If I go no higher I will be very satisfied that I have done my best and been recognized by my peers and my bosses as a first rate officer.”
As Ambassador, Michalak is the voice of the President in Vietnam. “All decisions in the Embassy are ultimately my responsibility, and Washington listens to my opinions – even if they don’t always follow my advice – whenever I send them in. Whenever a Cabinet official wants to know what’s going on in Vietnam they come to me – no matter what time it is here,” he explained. “It is quite a challenge to keep up with issues from building a new Embassy to human rights to complicated airplane deals to relations between our two military establishments. I love it!”
Earlier in his career, Michalak served in Australia, Pakistan, Japan and China, which led to his role in OU’s Woodcock Legacy Seminars. These annual seminars bring together professionals and government officials involved in Chinese trade and international business development. When Michalak began working in China in the early 1990s, he was contacted by Associate Professor of Anthropology Richard Stamps and Lieutenant Mel Gilroy, who asked for his participation as the first annual seminar was being organized.
Michalak explained, “I was delighted that I had an opportunity to give back to my alma mater something more than the $50 or $100 I would give in response to the annual giving request from the Alumni Association.”
Michalak attended many of the seminars, including the first, discussing China’s economic outlook and the country’s relationship with the United States, Japan, and the rest of the world. “I knew many of the Chinese Embassy people from Washington and would accompany them to the seminar, and I could actually use some of my poor Chinese in talking to them at the seminar,” he said.
Michalak is also involved with the OU-Guizhou partnership, through which OU-trained volunteers annually travel to China to immerse themselves in the culture and share their skills with their Chinese counterparts, and has spent time meeting with faculty and students about China and the Foreign Service. “I have been very happy with my career choice and love the opportunity to talk to people about my experiences in the service. It can be a very exciting job and exposes you to all kinds of situations that you rarely have a chance to see in ordinary life,” he said.
Michalak majored in physics at OU, earned a master’s in physics from Catholic University, and worked at NASA for four years before deciding to become a diplomat. He credits OU with teaching him that he could have friends – and make friends – with people of every rank and station. “This has been great for me as I have met Presidents and Secretaries of State both here and abroad and the easy going familiarity with authority I believe I developed at Oakland has been a real asset for me,” he said.
“More and more I don’t have to explain that OU is not in California and no, Rochester is in Michigan, not New York. OU alums are showing up in the Foreign Service and connections like the Guizhou project have helped to get OU known within China. I have run into OU professors at international conferences and even in airports getting ready to go to Asia,” Michalak said. “The new International Relations curriculum adds momentum to the burgeoning connections that OU is making, and I look forward to doing what I can to continue that momentum into the future.”