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Atlas Embraced

By Lloyd Ackert, Ph.D.
Associate Teaching Professor | Department of History & Politics

Photos by Gini Woy

February 25, 2013

Elias Okwara

Clues to Elias Okwara’s bright future are peppered across his curriculum vitae: co-ops in security and defense, media relations and global transparency; an analyst role in an international think tank; study abroad work in conflict resolution; and scores of extracurricular involvements. He has an international perspective earned through extensive travel, from his home in Mombasa, Kenya to co-op and academic opportunities in Belgium, England, Jordan and the United States.

I met Okwara at a local Philadelphia restaurant over dinner and a beer. I switched my order of a Yuengling to match his better, and as it turned out, more appropriate choice of the Belgian Leffe. He had an easy, confident manner, and was quick to laughter even as we moved from personal, to professional, to political topics. Food provided entrée to our ranging discussion of the challenges of international study and work, and of his occasional longing for the traditions of home, particularly the sweet teas and cafés of Mombasa.

A passionate, fully engaged student, Okwara has challenged Drexel’s already fast-paced culture since his first day on campus. As a freshman, fresh to the U.S. and too anxious to wait for his first co-op, he found an internship researching domestic and foreign policy issues at the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia. The position culminated in a speech given by Okwara at one of the Council’s events, at the request of the Council President.

Not surprisingly, he was busy back on campus as well, applying for funded research in the STAR Scholars program at Drexel. He spent the summer alongside Dr. Christian Hunold in the Department of History and Politics, investigating the role that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) might play in the International Criminal Court.

Living in the present, looking to the future

While other students might waver between majors and career paths, Okwara is confident and steadfast: his goals are so well formed that each decision seems an orchestrated gesture in a calculated dance toward his future. He moved confidently from his freshman research to a marketing co-op with the global law firm Duane Morris, and on to a study abroad at the Belgian Royal Military Academy and the European Parliament, the latter of which he expanded into his second co-op role.

He credits the support and advice of faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences in helping him to secure the international placements, namely Dean Murasko and Drs. Julie Mostov and Joel Oestreich from the International Area Studies program. It was their encouragement that led him to the EU, he says, where he worked with Anneli Jäätteenmäki, the former Prime Minister of Finland, and with then EU Parliament Vice President Libor Rouček, researching and communicating policies on security and defense.

Okwara doubled his efforts during his co-op, landing a second job as an analyst in the Peace and Security Section of a Belgian think tank, the Global Governance Institute (GGI). In his role at GGI (a position he still holds today), Okwara has continued to grow his expertise in defense, while tackling issues of crisis management and international human rights.

Elias Okwara

But in politics at every level, to the sensitive actors, frustrations are common—how one handles, for example, clashes of ideology and personal experience is telling. While working for the EU Parliament, Okwara was asked to craft an op-ed piece on the drafting of a new Sudanese constitution. As a young man living in Kenya, he had witnessed the tragic experiences of dislocated refugees during the political strife that created Kenyan-Sudanese border disputes. Striving to balance his personal history with the responsibility of representing his patrons, he stuck to his principles. That the essay, after some debate, was altered for publication—but yet was not the last he was asked to write—reflects the level of trust he had earned as a spokesperson for his homeland. Remaining true to his core beliefs was not a singular instance, but rather a lesson that will serve him well into the future.

The Prepared Mind

After six months of crafting speeches, interacting with press agents, and briefing the Heads of Cabinet in the EU, Okwara was primed for a rare Drexel offering: a two-part study abroad program in conflict resolution. Along with only five other students, Okwara traveled to London to examine the “Troubles” of Northern Ireland, and to Amman, Jordan to study the conflicts of the Middle East. The group met extensively with important policy makers, including Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s Chief-of-Staff, who negotiated the Good Friday Agreement, and Abdelsalam al-Majali, former Prime Minister of Jordan, who signed the 1994 Jordanian-Israeli Peace Agreement.

At the end of the intense study abroad, Okwara, at only 23 years of age, had gained an astute appreciation for the conflicts of today, particularly those of the Middle East: “The world does not have much time to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian question,” he remarked. “I left deeply concerned that the older generation on both sides, which could easily relate to the complex history of the conflict and therefore understand the need for compromise, could be replaced by a newer generation that is confronted by a simple narrative of ‘us versus them’—and would need to exhaust violence before pursuing peace.”

This maturity, and the expertise gained from his work abroad, was put to the test in the spring of 2012. With his experience at the EU bolstering his resume, Okwara was accepted to serve as a facilitator—a role traditionally reserved for doctorate and master’s-level researchers—for Security Jam 2012, an online collaboration of security and defense experts from around the world. Assigned to the special focus area of “Libya: Lessons Learned,” he assisted the moderators in assessing policy recommendations submitted to the G8. The resulting report, with recommendations, was later presented to global leaders at the NATO/ G8 Summit in May 2012.

A Diplomat Through and Through

As we rounded out our meal, I reflected on the surprising complexity of Okwara’s character; for such a serious student, one who has witnessed much strife and conflict, he is contrastingly approachable and good-natured. His affable appearance can be deceiving, nevertheless, as an associate of Okwara’s recently learned. Frustrated by what he perceived as weakness, he recommended that Okwara “get a backbone.” But, he had missed something crucial about his friend—something gained from extensive work in conflict negotiation: smiles may not always rise to the furrowed brow, and persistence requires not the heavy hand.

Okwara seems to have possessed this quiet resolve for some time; as an 18-year-old producer of a sports radio program in Mombasa, he secured the first interview ever granted by the first female governor of the Central Bank of Kenya.

“You’re a very stubborn young man,” she told him when she finally consented.

Where the Path May Lead

Elias Okwara

We are fortunate to have Okwara back on campus—for the moment. Busy with ongoing research and advising for the EU Parliament and Global Governance Institute, he is also recapturing efforts he initiated on campus prior to his travels abroad. The Drexel chapter of the United Nations Association-USA and its sister organization the Drexel Student Alliance, both of which Okwara founded in 2009, languished during his time away. His devotions to the groups are multiple—both to foster UN ideals and to aggressively preserve his creative achievements.

Conflict and security are again on Okwara’s mind and scheduled in two different spheres: in his new role as a resident assistant at Millennium and Race Halls, and at his final co-op at the Health Market Science think tank. The issues for the former are local—dealing with emergency preparedness and enforcement of living regulations for 40 of his peers. For the latter, the concerns are global conducting research into the global transparency of international health systems.

His plans after graduation are in flux, but they build on his extensive experiences in the U.S. and abroad. The best guess is that he will work for a year in business, likely continuing his work in global transparency. Next, a degree in law seems likely. What is certain is his desire to eventually work for the United Nations—when pressed on the seeming weaknesses of the UN to facilitate agreements in Syria, his keen eye for politics and European experiences help him remain optimistic and even infectiously encouraging. What is also certain is that he will bring his considerable talents and energies home to Kenya.

His goals are a blend of the lofty and the pragmatic, yet when he relates them, you realize he is already looking for the next, and perhaps subsequent moves. President of Kenya, maybe? He says “no.” But I wasn’t watching his eyes at the time.

Lloyd Ackert, Ph.D., is an associate teaching professor in the Department of History & Politics. His expertise is in the history of science, with specializations in the history of Russian science, evolution, and genetics. In his upcoming book, Sergei Winogradsky and the Cycle of Life, he uses scientific biography to examine the relationship between microbiology and ecology at the turn of the 20th century.