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Blugolds' paths converge while doing crucial diplomatic work in Africa

| Diane Walkoff

If you are a Blugold working in downtown Minneapolis, learning that your newest colleague also is a UW-Eau Claire graduate probably is not too surprising.

After all, UW-Eau Claire has 85,000 alumni, many of whom are highly sought-after leaders in their fields.

However, if you work in an embassy in Africa — more than 6,000 miles from your alma mater — it definitely is a shock to find yourself working alongside another Blugold.

Surprised, astounded and thrilled are among the words Joyce (Winchel) Namde, former deputy chief of mission for the U.S. Embassy in N’Djamena, Chad, Africa, uses to describe her reaction when she discovered she was not the only Blugold at the embassy in 2015.

Joyce, who left Chad a few weeks ago to take a new assignment in the Bureau of Consular Affairs in the State Department in Washington, D.C., said discovering a fellow Blugold thousands of miles away from the Eau Claire campus brought a smile to her face.

"I saw Minga Ndjerareou’s resume as part of welcoming her to the mission and was astounded to find out she was a Blugold," says Joyce, a 1975 Latin American studies graduate.

Minga, a 2005 management graduate, had a similar reaction.

"Right there during introductions, we started talking about Putnam Hall, the hill and the bridge," Minga says. "You could tell that we were very proud Blugolds."

While both love being Blugolds, their journeys to UW-Eau Claire were vastly different.

A native of La Crosse who fell in love with the Spanish language while in high school, Joyce came to UW-Eau Claire because of its strong language programs and its proximity to her hometown.

Born in Chad, Minga came to the U.S. with her family as an infant, returned to her homeland as a child, and eventually discovered UW-Eau Claire when she came back to the U.S. for a visit.

Joyce and Minga graduated three decades apart, but both say UW-Eau Claire — and especially their faculty advisors — played integral roles in their life and career paths.

Joyce’s faculty advisor was a retired foreign service officer who shared stories with her about serving the U.S. at embassies around the world. She immediately loved the idea of following a similar path.

"It was the perfect blend of patriotic service, languages, travel and the chance to know other cultures," Joyce says.

Inspired and encouraged by her advisor, Joyce took her first step toward becoming a foreign service officer while she was still a student at UW-Eau Claire. She took the written exam, a comprehensive test that covers everything from English to history to U.S. culture.

She did not pass the exam the first time (like many others) and pursued other career opportunities, but she never let go of her dream of someday becoming a foreign service officer.

After earning two master’s degrees, Joyce became a Spanish and English as a second language teacher and worked in refugee resettlement.

She married a Chadian who was studying in the U.S. In 1988, Joyce, her husband and their three children moved to Chad, where she served first as an English teacher for a year and then as a Fulbright lecturer for two years.

While in Chad, Joyce took the foreign service exam again — this time passing.

Since then, she has served in U.S. embassies abroad in London, Lagos, Manila, Cuidad Juarez, Port au Prince, Malabo and N’Djamena, and in the U.S. State Department offices of Oceans and Environmental Science, African Affairs and International Organizations.

When she was the "No. 2" person at the embassy in Chad, Joyce served as temporary ambassador when the ambassador was out of the country.

"I have had a wonderful career, a mix of bilateral and multilateral assignments," Joyce says. "I have issued both nonimmigrant and immigrant visas as well as U.S. passports, and helped Americans in distress overseas.

"I have been proud to speak for the U.S. in international negotiations on internet freedom and telecommunications at the U.N. and on environmental issues like desertification and wetlands preservation in international meetings."

Inspiration, motivation and dreams — all things nurtured at UW-Eau Claire — are at the heart of her long and successful career, Joyce says.

Joyce credits the late Dr. Roma Hoff, professor emerita of Spanish, for encouraging her to pursue travel and other languages; and Dr. Esther Lazcano and the late Dr. Antonio Lazcano, professors emeritus of Spanish, for spurring her interest in international politics.

"Decide what inspires or motivates you and what you love, and see how you can make that your career or goal in life,” Joyce says of her advice for current Blugolds. “Follow your dreams, even if sometimes doing so is delayed. I had a great career as a teacher and teacher trainer, but I am so fortunate that I could follow my other dreams as well.

"If I had given up after not passing the foreign service exam the first time, I would have lost the opportunity to represent my country in some amazing places and on important issues. It has been a marvelous career for this small-town girl from a working-class family in Wisconsin — beyond my wildest dreams — so please dream big and you can never predict what will happen!"

Like Joyce, Minga also found inspiration and opportunity at UW-Eau Claire.

While she spent much of her childhood in Chad, Minga’s two older brothers, Reuben and Nate, went to high school and community college in the U.S. They also spent time in Iowa with Brad and Amy Russell, family friends who also happen to be proud Blugolds.

When Minga came to spend the summer with her brothers during high school, the Russells took the three siblings to UW-Eau Claire for a campus visit.

After growing up in Chad, one of the warmest places on earth, Minga jokes that their first reaction to Eau Claire was "too cold!"

Nonetheless, Reuben and Nate enrolled and thrived at UW-Eau Claire, both graduating in 2000, the year Minga became a Blugold herself.

Minga's plan was to spend two years at UW-Eau Claire and then transfer to a university with an architecture program. However, she soon realized that she couldn’t afford to transfer, forcing her to rethink her academic plans.

Fortunately, she says, a number of faculty and staff stepped in to offer advice and support as she made the difficult decisions about her future.

"My experiences at UWEC kept me on my path," Minga says. "My professors and advisors were essential in shaping me to be the person I am today."

Even 12 years after graduating, Minga talks easily about the many specific ways the campus community went out of its way to help her move forward.

For example, she says, Dr. Thomas Lockhart, now a professor emeritus of physics who was Minga's pre-architecture advisor, helped her find a new academic path, Minga says.

"He encouraged me to pursue a master’s in architecture and not give up my dreams," Minga says, adding that he was one of many faculty who helped shape her college experience and her eventual career path.

"Theresa Wells (senior lecturer of management and marketing) was my advisor when I got into the business program," Minga says. “She took time to advise me, and ask the tough and necessary questions in planning my academic future. Dr. Fredric Kolb (professor emeritus of economics) helped me understand class material and get rid of my phobia of multiple-choice exams. Dr. Michael Penkava’s (professor of mathematics) calculus I class was so instructional that I ended up taking calculus II even though I didn’t need it for my program."

Even UW-Eau Claire's top administrator at the time — then-Chancellor Donald Mash — played a role in making her time at UW-Eau Claire so meaningful, she says, noting that he "would always make it a point to walk through Davies Center on his way home to say hello to the African Choir I started my sophomore year."

The Center for International Education's international advisors and its Host Family Program also enhanced her experience, she says, noting that her host families — Marcel and Mark Hull, Amy and Bill Benson, and Karen Solheim — were "the best host families — and we still keep in touch to this day!"

Like Joyce, who never lost sight of her goal to work in the foreign service, Minga never gave up her dreams of being an architect.

After graduating from UW-Eau Claire, Minga earned a master's degree in architecture and began a master's program in intercultural ministries.

She returned to Chad in 2013, where she worked in the architecture field for a year and then was hired as the human resources director for the first Hilton Hotel in N’Djamena.

Minga joined the U.S. Embassy in N’Djamena as a consular assistant in 2015, where she assists U.S. citizens with passports and other documentation, serves as a translator, meets with community contacts and helps with student outreach programs.

Remembering the support she received during her years at UW-Eau Claire, Minga makes it a point to give back to her home country.

She is part of a community development project in the southern part of Chad that brings together engineers, architects, agronomists and teachers to research the area, give community presentations and create a report, shared with the government of Chad.

"My education as a business major at UW-Eau Claire was very instrumental for the success of this project," Minga says. "It feels great to be back in Chad with the education and skills I acquired from UWEC.

"I started making a difference stateside after I left Eau Claire and now in Chad as well."

Minga says having had another UW-Eau Claire graduate close by was especially meaningful.

"This discovery started a great relationship," Minga says. "I really loved my experience at UWEC, and to have a fellow Blugold around to remind me of my time there was just amazing!"

Photo caption: Blugold alumni Joyce (Winchel) Namde '75 (left) and Minga Ndjerareou '05, pictured in special outfits to commemorate International Women's Day, were amazed to discover their shared UW-Eau Claire experience when they met at their workplace, the U.S. Embassy in Chad, Africa.