Issue: Fall/Winter 2012

New World of Opportunities

Brenda VanHorn ’01

Like so many people, I didn’t start out with a specific career in mind. An abiding interest in history and a love of travel eventually fostered an interest in international trade.  After completing an associate’s degree at Genesee Community College, I worked as a sales assistant, responsible, in part, for paperwork requirements for international shipments.  From that came more work in international trade and the potential for promotion to a management position.  My lack of a bachelor’s degree was the only thing holding me back. 

It was during this time when a former colleague told me about Houghton College P.A.C.E., a program that would allow a working adult to complete a bachelor’s degree in an accelerated format.  For a single mom with two kids and a full-time job, this seemed too good to be true! 

Houghton’s adult education program accepted my associate’s degree and allowed me to apply for life learning credit that incorporated my acquired knowledge about international trade.  Finishing my degree at Houghton wasn’t easy, but with the help of my family, colleagues and fellow students in my cohort, I made it! After 18 months I received my diploma – and the promotion – and continued to work in the field I loved.

Throughout my private sector career, I collaborated with the U.S. Department of Commerce, Foreign and Commercial Service.  The Commercial Service is an agency within the International Trade Administration that provides a range of services to help American companies export goods and services. Through a network of international and domestic offices, the Commercial Service helps U.S. businesses identify trade opportunities, find local business partners, promote products and services, obtain valuable market research reports, and protect American business interests.  During a meeting with my local trade specialist, I learned that the Commercial Service would be looking for new officers – something that happened only once every two to three years. Working and living overseas was something I had thought about, and this was the push I needed.  After a lengthy vetting process, I was sworn in during February of 2009.  My first post was a domestic assignment with the Buffalo Export Assistance Center, and from there I was assigned to Warsaw, Poland.

It is hard to describe the work I do here as commercial attaché, because every day is so different.  Perhaps the best way to relate my work is to walk you through a recent week on the job.

On Monday, I drafted remarks on corporate social responsibility for a speech that the ambassador was to give at a business event.

Tuesday, I met with a small-business owner who was in Poland looking for a distribution partner for the energy-saving building product his American company produces.

Wednesday, I conducted a performance review and then participated in a send-off celebration for a student intern who spent several months in our office learning firsthand about the role of government in the free enterprise system.

Thursday’s work included gathering information from an American firm that thought they might have been unfairly excluded from a public tender opportunity and advising them on the next steps they should take. 

Friday, I attended an anniversary celebration and grand opening of a training center for a well-known American business where I spoke with local Polish leaders about the potential benefits of using American technology for upcoming projects. 

In addition to these types of duties, it is my primary responsibility to manage the Commercial Service staff of 11 in their day-to-day work and interactions. 

The management degree I obtained at Houghton College has proven invaluable to effectively interrelate with not only different personalities, but different cultures as well.  I function as a liaison between our locally employed staff, the embassy community and the American businesses operating here in Poland and back in the States.  I credit Houghton College with giving me the business and academic education to do this work. More importantly, however, I am grateful that my education also included ethical and interpersonal studies which gave me a solid grounding in my own values and belief system. 

Like Thomas Jefferson, I have always believed in peace through commerce.  From my earliest days working as an international clerk, to managing international sales for a global corporation, to my current position in Poland, it is clear to me that commerce is more than just a means of increasing wealth; it can also be a mechanism to build bridges between cultures. 

My original motivation for enrolling at Houghton College was to earn my degree so I could be promoted within my company.  The knowledge and experiences gained at Houghton created a whole new world of opportunities for me.  Now, instead of helping one company export, I directly or indirectly help thousands – and best of all, I do this in service to my country and fellow citizens. 

Despite long hours, homesickness and the stress that comes from being in America’s “Other Army” (the Diplomatic Corps), I am thrilled to be here.  The work of commercial diplomacy is vital to our national prosperity, and I am driven by knowing the work I do helps American businesses, creates American jobs and presents America in a positive light to the world community.   I never forget that while I am here in this country, I represent America.  I never miss the opportunity to tell people that America is more than what you see in the movies.  It isn’t just New York City or Los Angeles; it’s also a small town in Western New York – home to a college that gives life-changing opportunities to those who are willing to put in the hard work to achieve their goals. 

Brenda VanHorn ’01 graduated from the adult education program (formerly known as P.A.C.E.).  She was a member of the K3 cohort in Jamestown, N.Y.


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