In a Different Place

Eric Eggleston ’03 travels from Nigeria to Turkey for the U.S. Foreign Service.

by Robin L. Flanigan

Eric Eggleston in Lagos, Nigeria

Eric Eggleston '03 at a health outreach program in Lagos, Nigeria.

Eric Eggleston ’03 recently spent two years in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, interviewing people who wanted to come to the United States. They had family to visit, schools to attend, theme parks to explore.

As a U.S. Department of State Foreign Service Officer helping to grant visas to travelers, Eggleston developed a profound appreciation for the African country’s vibrancy—in its bright fabrics, in its arts scene, in the resolute work ethic despite difficult economic conditions.

“I always say you can’t help but leave a piece of your heart in Nigeria,” he says.

But that’s part of the job, moving from assignment to assignment, becoming enmeshed in the culture of one country then another.

His next stop: Turkey.

In the U.S. since September, Eggleston leaves in May for a two-year tour in Istanbul. There, as a political officer, he will be “the eyes and ears” of the U.S. government, gathering and sharing information for State Department reports on foreign policy issues such as human rights and religious freedom. Until then, he is taking Turkish language classes to become conversationally fluent, and learning more about Turkish history and customs.

But that general knowledge base will take him only so far.

“Even if you know something from books and you follow the news,” he says, “there’s a different level of knowledge needed once you’re on the ground.”

In Nigeria, for example, even though most of the people he interviewed spoke English, Eggleston learned from local staff and experts that his questions weren’t always received as intended—nor did he always accurately interpret the answers he was given.

“They helped me put those pieces together and understand the full picture,” he recalls. “You have to ask ‘What just happened and what’s the backstory? How does the country’s history come into play?’ You need a deep context of what’s going on.”

That context made working with a yearlong youth fellowship program there all the more meaningful. Eggleston helped select and mentor young Nigerians wanting to make a positive impact on a society affected by limited educational opportunities, crumbling infrastructure, and corruption. The group he worked with met with community leaders and created leadership development materials to effectively engage with local governments.

“I was blown away by their dedication and outcomes, and won’t soon forget how they overcame so many challenges,” he says.

Eggleston says the liberal arts education he received at Nazareth College, where he majored in religious studies and sociology and minored in literature and honors, “is what allows me to see what’s in front of me through different lenses, and allows me to turn those lenses for different perspectives. That’s what you need to do to have a complete understanding of a complex situation—and then react to it.”

Eggleston is looking forward to his time in Istanbul, where he vacationed briefly years ago and was taken with one street in particular, which had “sweet shop after sweet shop. We’re going to have to make the gym a central part of life over there,” he says, referring to himself and his wife Faith, who telecommutes for the international relief and development organization Save the Children.

Turning serious, Eggleston reflects on the difficulties that come with his far-flung posts. He misses out on holidays, weddings, babies being born. “It’s tough,” he says. “The one thing that’s omnipresent when you’re in a different place is that you’re in a different place.

“The work is very demanding,” he adds. “It’s not for everybody. But you can really do some good work.”

Robin L. Flanigan is a writer in Rochester, New York.

Eric and Faith Eggleston

Eggleston and his wife Faith in traditional Yoruba clothing on a visit to the Nike (pronounced Ni-kay) Gallery in Lagos, Nigeria.