DU Alumni / Magazine Feature / People

Alum goes from farm to foreign affairs

Deborah Sisbarro

Deborah Sisbarro stands in front of the Citadel in Herat, Afghanistan where she monitored the budget for its preservation. Photo: Deborah Sisbarro

Thumbing through old issues of National Geographic in her attic as a child, Deborah Sisbarro gazed into the far corners of the world from her small farm in Kansas. She knew from that point that she couldn’t settle for the quiet wheat fields of her hometown.

Sisbarro (MGS ’08) is now the senior media operations officer at NATO’s Media Operations Centre in Brussels, Belgium. Through this position, Sisbarro works with the international media, explaining NATO’s mission in the country. Her work involves a lot of interaction with Afghan citizens, and she has come to understand how their lives have been affected during the war.

“Those magazines made me realize I didn’t have to be content with what my small world presented me,” Sisbarro says.

Sisbarro’s journey began while attending Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo., where she took a computerized test to determine what career to pursue. According to Sisbarro, no matter how she answered the multiple-choice questions, the result always came back the same, reading “Foreign Service Officer.”  So she entered the foreign service, which led her to posts in a variety of places including Frankfurt, Germany; Kiev, Ukraine; and Tbilisi, Georgia.

After serving three years in a public diplomacy position in Moscow, Sisbarro came to Denver — where her husband was assigned — and began work on her master’s degree at DU.

“The mid-career program at DU was perfect for me because it allowed me to pick up courses I needed to fill the gaps in my experience,” Sisbarro says. “My classes allowed me to take the time to look at issues from an academic perspective, rather than just being knee-deep in an issue.”

After receiving her master’s degree, Sisbarro spent a year working in Afghanistan in the U.S. Embassy’s public affairs section focusing on U.S. educational and cultural programs before moving to Brussels to work with NATO.

“Since Afghanistan is NATO’s highest priority, it only made sense that I continued to put my experience to work,” Sisbarro says.

The most rewarding part of her work is her direct contact with civilians, whether it’s for a cultural center, for Ramadan or a women’s day event.

“Afghanistan is the most fascinating country I’ve ever visited with complex ethnic, tribal and cultural structures,” Sisbarro says. “It’s almost like being able to take a step back in time, but the Afghan people deserve a better life.”

Her work at the U.S. Embassy has even allowed her to assist the magazine that inspired her as a child. One of her biggest projects was organizing a photography exhibit of the work of National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry on Afghanistan’s diversity. Sisbarro also brought McCurry to the exhibit in Kabul, where he provided a photography workshop.

While Sisbarro intends on spending the rest of her career developing relationships and building understanding between the U.S. and other nations, she never imagined herself doing the things that she is today.

“Some of what I’ve done has just been dictated by world circumstances. In 1998, I’d have never imagined that I’d get to spend so much time in Afghanistan,” Sisbarro says. “There’s still so much more of the world I’d like to explore.”

While the move has created a big change for Sisbarro and her family in terms of location, she’s delighted to have her children with her while staying connected to Afghanistan. By visiting Afghanistan for approximately two weeks every other month, Sisbarro stays in contact with Afghan locals while still spending time with her children.

“They’ve had the opportunity at a young age [9 and 13] to see so much of Europe that I only was able to read about at their age,” Sisbarro says. 

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