Leah Knobel – United States (Kansas)
From “heartlander” to global citizen with a mission
An active teenager in high school, Leah Knobel made the National Honor Society and served as student body secretary and yearbook editor, but she sensed there was more to life than her Kansas community was offering. She never met a Muslim until she encountered an international exchange student in college. She didn’t meet and become friends with an openly-gay individual until she was eighteen and working at Nordstrom’s in Kansas City. Her limited experience wasn’t because she feared people unlike herself; in fact, from a very young age, she’d always wanted to meet people from different cultures, thanks to her natural curiosity, her outgoing nature, her passion for travel, and a role model—her aunt who is a diplomat and a global citizen.
Leah explains that, “for most of our history, isolationism has been a luxury that Americans in the heartland have been able to afford.” Distance from coasts and borders made them feel safe, she says, adding, “Although the geography can be seen as an excuse to stay in a bubble, it does not grant Midwesterners permission to forfeit any concern they may have for the outside world.” America is a nation of immigrants from all over the globe, so she believes “it is each American’s duty to accept and celebrate our origins” and at least educate ourselves about the cultures and current events of the countries whose people came here seeking freedom and opportunity.
Kansas State University (K-State) began opening doors for Leah as she pursued a degree in journalism and mass communication, emphasizing public relations. An active freshman, she naturally gravitated toward social organizations: a sorority, the Public Relations Student Society of America, Welcome Center Ambassadors, and more. She also participated in the Student Governing Association and was elected as a senator for the College of Arts and Sciences, which included a seat on the privilege fee committee and a rigorous lesson in government. A privilege fee is a mandatory student fee that entitles students to the health center, recreational complex, student union, counseling services, and more. Similar to a national senator debating health care, Leah found that, “The fee is a balancing act. Improving the fee leads to better services, but a larger fee that students must pay; yet underfunding could lead to a decrease in the quality of services provided to students.” She held an open dialogue with her constituents as to why the fee was so important, and what the fee offers them as students.
Over the summer, Leah eagerly volunteered to teach English in a church camp in a small working class town in the Czech Republic. The people made her feel welcome and appreciated, so much so that their kindness and generosity seemed “almost foreign” to her. She has since adopted their warmth when she meets new people who may be unfamiliar with Kansas customs.
She returned to K-State, resuming classes and activities, and the following April became a Client Services Intern for nine months, working with clients to produce and launch media campaigns. The following summer, she volunteered for the Food Recovery Network, where she still contributes. Restless to find meaningful direction in her future, she listened to her aunt, “a fearless, independent woman who has worked extremely hard to get to where she is today.” Constantly supportive, she had urged Leah to consider the US Foreign Service. Leah “threw all caution to the wind” and applied for an internship.
She received secret security clearance and was accepted by the U.S. Department of State to serve as a Consulate Intern at the U.S. Embassy in Dublin, Ireland for four months, starting in January, 2017. She worked in the visa adjudication process and assisted with American Citizen Services (ACS). “My first day of work was President Trump’s first business day in office,” Leah says, “and the executive orders began to roll out shortly after.” The consulate received guidance on each executive order, and then a federal judge blocked it, only to have a new version replace it. “It was exhausting,” she says, “even as an intern.” She found that Foreign Service Officers were extremely hardworking people “who understood the magnitude of their positions” and did their best to implement new regulations while trying to remain as fair as possible. This work was meaningful for her, even life-changing.
While finishing her degree at K-State, Leah works in the Student Office, assisting international students and scholar programs, and now says, “a future career as a professional global citizen is all I can imagine,” especially with the US Foreign Service. That may take awhile, she adds, and in the meantime, she hopes to encourage Americans to expand their cultural horizons. “They need to shake hands with a Muslim, or talk about life with an openly-gay individual, or attend a lecture by a female business executive.” And urbanites could greatly benefit from meeting people from rural America to understand why they are anxious about a changing world and diminishing economic opportunity. “I believe my role in educating my community will allow individuals to understand and accept those different from themselves, in turn promoting conflict resolution amongst our community, nation, and world.”