Oct. 6, 2009

Alumna becomes witness to history in foreign service posts

Every American can remember where he or she was when newscasters broke the news of Sept. 11, 2001. In much the same way, Lynne Gadkowski '98 will never forget Nov. 26, 2008, the day the terror attacks began in Mumbai, India.

Gadkowski, a public affairs officer at the U.S. Consulate in Mumbai, was one of the senior officials to respond to the needs of American citizens and report to the press during the shooting and bombing attacks.

The three-day ordeal resulted in 173 deaths, including six Americans. Gadkowski recalls a "very tense, very scary atmosphere" at the consulate, where she and her colleagues coordinated communications between the United States and India. "We did whatever we could: tracking down the Americans in Mumbai, getting guest lists from hotels, fielding phone calls from Americans with relatives in India, briefing the secretary [of state] and president on what was happening over the phone, and getting background on who was behind the attacks," she said in a telephone interview.

"The consulate would get calls from the morgue," Gadkowski said, as they tried to identify the mounting number of bodies. "There was hotel firefighting going on, burned out windows, charred brick, loud sirens, helicopters with elite military rappelling into buildings, and then thousands of people standing around watching the spectacles."

"I don't think anything can prepare you for that situation," she admits. But she does believe her Cornell experience equipped her for her 10-year career in the United States Foreign Service.

At Cornell, Gadkowski majored in government, international relations and French, played field hockey and rugby, and studied in France. "Managing the rigorous workload," she explained, "prepares you for basically anything."

Gadkowski also emphasized the independence Cornell fostered in her: "Cornell teaches you [that] if you don't know anything about it, go research it and formulate intelligent questions."

In 2000, when a coup erupted in Fiji only three weeks after Gadkowski began working as vice consul in Suva, she likened the episode to a common Cornell scenario: "I was in a totally new country, work environment, new organization, and it felt a lot like any class freshman year where you have no idea what's going on around you -- it's a sink-or-swim atmosphere."

Several influences urged her in the direction of international work and foreign policy, including Mary Katzenstein, professor of government, other members of that department, the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies and an economic development course she took in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

"I consider myself quite lucky to have the education I did, and that now I can use my skills and background to help other people doing work I enjoy," Gadkowski said.

Lauren McHugh '10 is a writer intern with the Cornell Chronicle.