From DC to Japan and Back
After graduating college, Laura Winthrop Abbot began crafting a career in international relations. From her first job in a foreign policy think tank to her graduate work at Cambridge University, each new role and opportunity was a building block that helped propel her to the next level of the foreign relations field. Those building blocks took her to London, to New York, and eventually to Washington, D.C. working in the U.S. Senate on the Foreign Relations Committee. That’s when the man she had been dating for four months, her now husband, asked:
“What do you think about Japan?”
That question presented Laura with a decision. Would she continue on the career trajectory she had worked so hard to maintain? Or would she move halfway across the earth into an uncertain future? She decided on Japan.
Reflecting today, Laura recounts the embarrassment and concern she felt when thinking about how she would break the news to her colleagues. It was a risky professional decision to follow someone whom she had been dating for less than a year. In addition to leaving her career behind in Washington, moving to Japan brought two cultural changes at once: learning how to live in a new country and learning how to live as a military spouse.
Laura’s initial professional plan for Japan was to improve exchange programs between the United States and Japan through a fellowship with the Council on Foreign Relations. But six weeks after arriving in Japan, The Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami brought destruction beyond belief. Laura was compelled to find a way to assist with the recovery efforts. She shifted the focus of her fellowship to setting up opportunities for young people in the tsunami-hit region.
“Because of my work after the earthquake, I had a close look at Operation Tomodachi, a collaboration between the US military and Japan self-defense forces,” she said. “The communities came together in an extremely positive way. Getting to see that helped lay the groundwork of the TOMODACHI Initiative.”
The TOMODACHI Initiative, a sustainable effort aimed at providing educational exchange and leadership development opportunities for young people from the tsunami-hit region and beyond, became Laura’s focus for the remainder of her time in Japan. She built the organization from the ground up and worked with then-Ambassador to Japan, John Roos. Starting as the only employee, she was eventually able to hire on other military spouses and spouses of foreign service officers, spreading opportunities for career development. With the TOMODACHI Initiative, Laura had landed on her feet professionally, and her experience working in Japan opened new doors for her when the orders came to move back to the states.
Laura continued to advance the TOMODACHI mission from Washington, D.C. as Senior Vice President of the U.S.-Japan Council. Her experience in Japan establishing a public-private partnership helped prepare her for her current role as Senior Advisor in the Secretary’s Office of Global Partnerships at the State Department.
Inspiring One Another
Today, she feels settled in Washington, but like every military spouse, Laura knows one set of orders to move across the country or across the globe can uproot her again and force her to get creative.
“You are always going to be have to be willing to reinvent yourself,” she said, citing other military spouses as her source of inspiration. Spouses today constantly find new ways to stay on track professionally while their service member counterparts push forward in military careers. Whether it’s pursuing a degree, finding a virtual job, or learning a new language, Laura has seen the working spouse community rise above the challenges of the military lifestyle.
Had she known what she was getting into when she agreed to move to Japan, Laura would have made the same decision, but with her eyes a little more open. The life of a service member is a life of sacrifice both individually and for the family. Laura is fortunate to have a husband who leans into her career and values it as much as his own, but the nature of the military automatically makes the civilian spouse’s career take second place.
“In a civilian career path, you have more flexibility, so you’re supposed to figure it out as you go,” she explained.
Through those sacrifices, Laura has often relied on the military spouse community for support. Working spouses have faced the same problems. They know what it’s like to come home after a long day of work and comfort a child who is missing a deployed parent. They know what it’s like to get out the door to work on time in the morning when kids, pets, doctors appointments and other family obligations fall to you alone while the military member is on assignment.
“We’re all grappling with this,” Laura said. “It’s comforting to know you’re not alone.”
Advice for Younger Spouses
At times, being a military spouse has been a challenge to Laura’s career, but it has brought advantages as well.
“Because of my work in foreign policy, in a way it has helped me to better understand some of the real life implications of foreign policy decisions,” she said. “You actually see the impact of these decisions and what it means for military members going out to serve our country.”
In addition to gaining new insights for her work, Laura took advantage of Japanese language classes while in Japan, an opportunity made available to her through the military.
Capitalizing those silver linings can open doors that later connect to larger career goals, and seizing every opportunity, even if it is not a paid position, keeps spouses plugged into the professional world.
Laura encourages younger spouses to pair creativity with persistence to find meaningful employment in addition to relying on the service members for support. If both partners are ready to make a commitment to public service, she says, it can be an adventurous life, but it is a sacrifice. If the service member is aware of the sacrifice the family has to make and works to minimize the impact of those hardships, the spouse is better set up to focus on a career.