From Senior Thesis to Foreign Service: Ruben Murray ’19 Conducts Diplomacy in Djibouti

Ruben Murray '19 provides interpretation for a meeting between the Djibouti president and the U.S. Secretary of Defense.

When Ruben Murray ’19, wrote his senior thesis on the small East African country of Djibouti, the international relations major didn’t expect to end up there two years later as a foreign service officer for the U.S. State Department.

Having dreamt of becoming a diplomat as a child, Murray was able to cut his teeth on his first post, performing such tasks as interpreting for a meeting between the Djibouti president and the U.S. Secretary of Defense, serving as the interim chief of his section, and joining a search and rescue mission of stranded migrants in the desert.

Taking classes on African history with Professor Makhroufi Ousmane Traoré and conducting research on African politics and development with Professor Pierre Englebert helped Murray find his niche in African security studies and focus his senior thesis on Djibouti.

“His dedication to the study of African politics and development at Pomona was heartwarming,” says Englebert. “And he was sophisticated in his understanding of the world.”

Murray used the country as a case study for comparing approaches between the U.S. and China in Africa. Despite a population of less than a million people, Djibouti hosts seven foreign military bases, including the U.S.’s only military base in Africa.

“It’s an interesting microcosm of global challenges and competition,” says Murray.

When it came time for Murray to rank his choices for his first assignment as a foreign service officer, he included Djibouti in a list of about 20 countries. “I didn’t think twice,” he says. As it turned out, Djibouti had an immediate need for a political officer.

Murray’s qualifications also included his fluency in French, having grown up in France with a French and Spanish mother and an African American father. Djibouti, a Francophone country, was formerly known as French Somaliland before it gained independence from France in 1977.

Each day on the job presented different demands and challenges. “It’s all based on what’s happening in the country, what’s happening in the region,” says Murray.

In his role, Murray gathered information for Washington on political developments in Djibouti and wrote reports on human rights, human trafficking, and migration and refugee flows.

“We tried to inform Washington as soon as possible so they could understand the policy area, especially because the relationship (between the U.S. and Djibouti) is very important,” says Murray.

The job included a lot of writing, says Murray, and his education at Pomona prepared him well.

He took advantage of the Center for Speaking, Writing, and the Image regularly, visiting weekly for help with class assignments. When writing reports now, he says, “I still go through the same mechanism that I did when I was submitting my papers to the Writing Center.”

One of the most surreal moments of his two years in Djibouti came when U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin arrived for meetings with the country’s president. When it became clear that Murray was the most qualified person to provide translation, he says was “kind of thrown into the situation.”

“That’s not something that’s written in your contract,” he says.

But it did land him in an historic moment—the Secretary’s first official trip to Africa. Murray appreciates the honor of “conveying the talking points of the Secretary of Defense at the highest level of the diplomatic relationship.”

Before he wrapped up his post in Djibouti last month, Murray received the U.S. State Department’s Superior Honor Award for his sustained extraordinary performance in Djibouti.

Now he is back in Washington, preparing for his next post at the U.S. Embassy in London.

Professor Mietek Boduszyński, who taught Murray and graded his thesis and is himself a former diplomat, isn’t surprised by Murray’s success.

“Ruben showed a deep interest in foreign affairs during his time as a student in my class,” says Boduszyński. “I knew right away that his cross-cultural skills and engaging personality would make him a brilliant diplomat.”

Having found what he was passionate about “as opposed to doing something because I thought it would look good for employers in the future,” Murray’s advice for current students is, “Find what moves you.”

For Murray, serving as a foreign service officer means “you can move and change the world a little bit through diplomacy.”

Murray’s views are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of the State.