From Mount Holyoke to the Pentagon: The Improbable Story of a Spanish Major

Jessie Babcock '03 with Secretary of Defense

Jessie Babcock '03 with Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta in 2012.

Jessie Babcock '03

Foreign Policy Advisor, U.S. Department of Defense

Academic Focus: English and Spanish double major

Advanced Degrees: Sustainable MBA, The Heller School for Social Policy and Management, 2009

Honors Thesis: Lengua, patria e identidad: el exilio de Teresa Gracia

Study Abroad: CIEE Liberal Arts Program in Seville

When I decided to double major in English and Spanish literature at Mount Holyoke, I never could have guessed that my studies would lead me, a decade later, to travel with the Secretary of Defense to Chile and Uruguay, where I would sit in the same room when he met with his counterpart and the President of Uruguay. Nor could I have imagined myself making a speech in Spanish to fifteen senior Chilean officials the following year, during bilateral talks with Ministry of Defense counterparts. Such is the surprising life of a former literature major!

Most people — chiefly my parents — thought I was crazy to major in a "useless" degree. What could I do with my BA in Spanish and English except teach? In fact, studying Spanish at Mount Holyoke and living abroad in Sevilla, Spain, during my junior year, gave me skills I could not have anticipated: not only the ability to think critically and to understand deeply the culture and history of other countries, but also the ability to write in two languages, and perhaps more importantly, a yearning to challenge myself intellectually and professionally.

These skills have stayed with me throughout my career. Indeed, my mentor, Prof. Nieves Romero-Diaz, inspired me with her passion for Spanish literature and helped instill in me critical analytical and research skills — not to mention linguistic capability — that I use to this day. Just as importantly, my time in the Spanish Department at Mount Holyoke inspired me to give back after graduating in 2003 by founding the Jessie E. Babcock Prize in Spanish — a modest award that seeks to recognize the academic achievements of Mount Holyoke students of Spanish.

Years later, these skills gave me the confidence to apply to be a Presidential Management Fellow in the Department of Defense, where eventually I became the Country Director for Argentina, Chile and Uruguay — and traveled with two Secretaries of Defense. My language skills and familiarity with Latin American history and culture allowed me to serve as an effective interlocutor with our counterparts and to prepare the Secretary for his meetings.

It has been a true joy to know that my studies at Mount Holyoke have made me the person I am today, and have contributed in so many ways, tangible and intangible, to what I do on a daily basis.