Retired Foreign Service Officer Enriches International Studies Program
It’s seasonably warm for a December evening in Houston. At the University of St. Thomas, as the sun begins to cast a shadow on Strake Hall, seven young men and women make their way to classroom 205.
They take their seats and turn on their laptops, and the head of class arrives. With silver hair and an inviting smile, he denotes wisdom and warmth. This is Professor Richard Sindelar, veteran officer of the United States Foreign Service, and he is ready to begin his American Foreign Policy class.
On the agenda is Yalta. Some might know the city as a popular resort destination on the southern coast of the Crimean Peninsula. But in this classroom, for Sindelar’s foreign policy students, Yalta is a city with a major place in world history.
With Sindelar at the helm, the students delve into a discussion about diplomacy. It was on Feb. 4-11, 1945 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin met in Yalta to discuss the organization of post-war Europe. This meeting became known as the Yalta Conference.
Though the leaders were satisfied with some resolutions, they each came with their own agendas. It was in Yalta where the tensions and distrust between the United States and Russia became apparent. The Yalta Conference foreshadowed the Cold War.
Sindelar calls to one of his students. “Ambassador Fitzpatrick, do we understand present-day Russia?” The student’s answer prompts a lively discussion among the group — the results of the Cold War still influence today’s world affairs.
In Sindelar’s classroom, all students take on a role as if they were in the Foreign Service. They are diplomats, ambassadors or national security advisors. The focus is not on personal ideologies, but on the structure of policy-making and the art of diplomacy. Beyond required reading and class discussion, students are challenged to think like foreign policy advisors and to apply diplomatic strategies to real-world situations.
On the front row is senior Ephraim Thomas. American Foreign Policy is not his first class with Sindelar; he also has taken classes about the Middle East and North Africa, and well as International Law.
“My favorite thing about his classes is the viewpoint is not just a political one, but one of facts. He deals with very real time situations, and in real time ways,” Thomas said. “He will ask us about current events, and put us in situations to apply what we learn from his class to the event. He also looks at history as well as what is going on now.”
Thomas, who graduated in December, said he has found International Studies to be enlightening, and now has a different outlook about the philosophies and theories that run the world.
Sindelar said his class aims to instill in students the craft of diplomacy. No matter what career field students pursue after graduation — the art of knowing how to negotiate, how to marshall resources, how to resolve issues without hostility and conflict — are instrumental to one’s success.
My favorite thing about Sindelar’s class is the viewpoint is not just a political one, but one of facts. He deals with very realtime situations, and in realtime ways.
The man behind the lessons
Sindelar is a strong believer in diplomacy. As a retired Foreign Service Officer, he brings to the classroom practical knowledge of political, consular, economic and security issues, both domestic and abroad. Sindelar’s assignments have brought him across the globe, with time spent in the Near and Middle East, and the Americas.
His first assignment after graduating from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University sent him to the Embassy in Tel Aviv, where he helped support Secretary Kissinger’s peace missions. This was during the spring of 1974, after Syria’s attempt to retake the Golan Heights from Israeli control.
He will never forget the sonic booms made by fighter jets dropping bombs on the coveted plateau.
“If you heard one of those booms, someone was going to die on the Golan in about 1.2 minutes,” Sindelar said.
He also remembers visiting a friend, then a Georgetown priest assigned to Jerusalem, who lived in a 19th-century, palatial building on top of a hill. In the dark after dinner, with the Golan Heights in the distance, they climbed the roof for a prime viewing spot of artillery fire.
This scene was a defining moment in Sindelar’s Foreign Service experience.
“When it was quiet, you couldn’t see anything. But when the artillery started firing, the flashes would outline the mountain,” he said. “I saw that this stuff really happens.”
After Tel Aviv, the Foreign Service sent Sindelar to Jerusalem, where he reported on economic aspects of the West Bank and handled American citizen consular issues. He later was assigned to analyze foreign affairs in Lebanon and the Palestine, and served as a liaison officer with the U.S. Sinai Field Mission.
In 1983, Sindelar added to his credentials by graduating Cum Laude from Georgetown University Law Center. This allowed him to work as advisor and staff attorney for the Office of Advisory Opinions. After helping the department with U.S. and foreign criminal and civil statutes, Sindelar became a watch officer for the Intelligence and Research Bureau, where he monitored global developments and provided intelligence briefings.
His career also allowed him to serve as Deputy Consular Section Chief at the U.S. Consulate General in Montreal, which served more than 100,000 clients a year. He also was Deputy Director for the Office of Analysis for the Near East and South Asia, and Deputy Consular General at the U.S Consulate in Monterrey, which allowed him to manage trade policy between the United States and Mexico under NAFTA.
Sindelar retired from the Foreign Service in 1995 and returned to Houston with his second wife, Patti. His first wife, Irene, died in 1985.
“We came back to Houston because family was here, and it was the ‘home’ from which I had entered the Foreign Service in 1973,” he said.
Family over the years with Sindelar, his wife, Patti, and son, Hugo (R.J.) From L to R: A visit the beaches of Normandy; Sindelar and Patti meeting for the first time; a loving moment over breakfast; Sindelar and son; Sindelar and Patti celebrate the holidays.
In Houston, Sindelar began to work for the oil and gas industry, practicing compliance and immigration law for a downtown firm. However, the task of molding young minds and imparting knowledge had always been one of his ambitions.
“I really wanted to be a university professor even when I was in Georgetown’s Foreign Service School,” he said.
Sindelar is the oldest of six children and had put himself through school on loans and scholarships. He graduated from Strake Jesuit High School in 1967.
“Dad didn’t pay for college, so he wasn’t going to pay for any grad school,” Sindelar said. “At that point in time, I realized professorship was gone. So I shrugged my shoulders, came back to Houston for a while, and signed up for the Foreign Service.”
It was Sindelar’s unwavering interest in world happenings that led him to UST. During an event with the Houston World Affairs Council, Sindelar met UST professor emeritus and former Center of International Studies director Bill Cunningham, a retired Foreign Service officer. The two became friends.
Through Cunningham, Sindelar learned in 2003 that UST was searching for an experienced practitioner to teach American Foreign Policy Process. It had been always been tradition at the Center for International Studies that foreign policy courses would be taught by someone with direct experience in the field.
Sindelar expressed his interest, got the job, and began teaching his first course at UST. With his experience with security and intelligence, Sindelar also was asked to teach a course in International Security, which he accepted while still practicing law.
Connections and Inspiration
Today, students with aspirations of becoming a Foreign Service officer find Sindelar a vital source of support and knowledge within UST’s Center for International Studies.
Durrell Green, a UST student since 2013, chose UST because of its veteran friendly status. Before coming to UST, Green served as a U.S. Army infantryman for four years. He has done a tour in Korea, in Germany and a combat tour in Afghanistan. It was in Afghanistan that Green became interested in working for the Foreign Service after meeting the State Department adviser assigned to his unit.
“I started researching colleges in the Houston area with international studies programs when I was about to get out of the Army,” Green said.
I chose UST because of the university being chosen as a top school for veterans, and because of the university’s yellow ribbon program which covers the part of my tuition that exceeds my post 9/11 G.I. Bill. -Durrell Green
Green enrolled in the Center for International Studies, and with Sindelar’s help, was awarded a spot in the U.S. Foreign Service Internship Program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.
“I wouldn’t have even known about the program if it wasn’t for Professor Sindelar,” Green said.
Green met Sindelar during the first day of his American Foreign Policy class, where the professor asked students of their interest in working for the State Department.
“I told him that I was interested. He was extremely happy … he made a note of my interest on the roll sheet,” Green said. “When he arranged for John Roberts to come to campus, he made sure I was there.”
John Roberts, Diplomat in Residence for Southeast Texas and Louisiana, routinely visits area colleges to present information about the Foreign Service to students. Sindelar helps the Center for International Studies maintain a solid working relationship with Roberts.
After attending the information session, Green told Sindelar of his interest in the internship. Green said the application process was similar to a job application or college admission application, and he provided information about his work history, essays about leadership roles he has held in the past, as well has his take on foreign policy issues.
“Professor Sindelar helped me through the process. He graciously edited my essays for me, and arranged for me to receive a letter of recommendation from John Roberts, which helped me to receive the internship,” Green said. “Professor Sindelar also helped me to get an idea of what to expect when I got ready to begin my internship.”
The paid, two-summer internship brought Green to the U.S. Department of State headquarters in Washington where he was assigned to the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs for the East Asia-Pacific region (EAP).
Green graduated in May, 2016 armed with experience and connections from his internship. He’ll also take with him lessons learned from Sindelar, which Green said have helped him develop analytical abilities and a system of thinking that can be applied to any foreign policy situation.
Educating Leaders of Faith and Character
Stories like Green’s are part of what makes Sindelar’s time at UST worthwhile.
“It’s fun to interact with the students,” he said. “It’s fun to see that they will be successful in life. I try to give them as many tools as I can in class to help them look at things in an objective way.”
At UST, Sindelar’s students come from a variety of backgrounds and career aspirations. Some like Green, the U.S. Army veteran, hope to one day walk in his shoes as a Foreign Service officer.
You can get a sense that students might have an aptitude for the Foreign Service if they have the analytical skills or the thinking process, or are interested in foreign affairs. I usually try to talk to those students and see what the interest level is.
Sindelar helps as best he can to provide students with industry insight and connections who can help further their careers. Some of his students use their international studies courses to prepare for careers in the oil and gas industry, of which Houston is a hub.
“Diplomacy happens in the oil industry just as well,” Sindelar said.[/column][column size=one_third position=last ][/column][column size=two_third position=first ]
Sindelar’s Foreign Service training remains relevant, and brings color to the classroom.
“In the Foreign Service, you’re taught early on what’s called ‘reading in’,” Sindelar said. “First thing in the morning, you read everything you can — with the cable traffic, the intelligence traffic and the newspapers.”
In those days, Sindelar said he watched for press clips. Today, Sindelar gets his news online, with much faster access to current events. Still always “reading in,” Sindelar checks the news several times throughout the day to catch worldwide happenings.
“Because the Middle East is far enough ahead of us, I usually ‘read in’ at midnight, which is about 9-10 a.m. there,” Sindelar said.
When he gets up the next day, Sindelar “reads in” from around 10 a.m. to past noon.
When Sindelar finds a noteworthy event, he brings the topic to class for discussions. Because his students also have access to real-time information, it is not unusual for them to get into animated discussions even before the day’s official lessons have begun.
“I think generally the social media phenomenon has made them more engaged. They tend to be more aware of what’s going on, of far flung issues,” Sindelar said. “We have a full political spectrum in our student body. Depending on the issue, there can be interesting debates.”
At the end of the day – after assigned reading, class discussions, lessons on diplomacy, mentoring sessions, and the special guests he helps bring to campus – Sindelar hopes students leave UST with a better understanding and a bigger picture of the world outside of Houston.