An Alumna Abroad
Written by Áine Cain|
September 1, 2015
When United States Ambassador to Mauritius and Seychelles Shari Villarosa J.D. ’78 first enrolled in William and Mary Law School, she already knew she didn’t want to be a lawyer.
“… There are two types of people who go to law school; the ones who actually want to be lawyers … and then those who are looking for graduate liberal arts degrees,” Villarosa said. “I was in the latter category.”
Originally from Texas, Villarosa described herself as an “army brat” with a nomadic childhood and a passion for reading and history. She first visited the College of William and Mary on a field trip while attending McLean High School. However, she completed her undergraduate education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she majored in international studies.
When Villarosa’s husband was assigned to work in Norfolk, she decided to apply to the William and Mary Law School. Not interested in pursuing a legal career, she gravitated toward more unconventional courses, including Constitution and Foreign Policy. William and Mary Law School Dean William Spong, a former United States Senator, taught the course. Villarosa said she appreciated the small class size and admired Spong, whose election helped to dismantle Virginia’s anti-desegregationist Byrd Organization political machine.
Outside of class, Villarosa volunteered at a legal aid center in Newport News, largely working to provide legal services to individuals who could not afford a lawyer.
“The biggest lesson I learned is so often it was unfortunate mistakes that were made and people would take advantage of [the poor], which continues to be a problem unfortunately,” Villarosa said.
Because she did not live near campus, Villarosa said she did not become extremely involved in any other extracurricular activities on campus. To pass time between classes, Villarosa obtained a Colonial Williamsburg student pass with her student ID.
“I loved the maze at the Governor’s Palace,” Villarosa said. “I would go back there and wander a lot.”
Living in Norfolk did come with one massive drawback — a brutal morning commute.
“That was the only time in my life I ever had 8 o’clock in the morning classes,” Villarosa said. “I used to drive to Williamsburg and I did not remember the trip. And I would park and was like, ‘Oh, I wonder how I got here?’”
Villarosa ended up carpooling with other law students, which made the hazy drive a bit more tolerable.
After law school, Villarosa worked for Congress before entering into the Foreign Service. She has served in Colombia, East Timor, Jakarta and Burma and speaks Spanish, Portuguese, Thai and Indonesian.
Villarosa acted as charge d’affaires for the United States Embassy in Burma from 2005 to 2008. At the time, there was no United States Ambassador to Burma, so Villarosa was in charge of the mission during a particularly turbulent time. During her tenure, the country experienced a devastating cyclone and brutal military suppression of popular protests. Villarosa said that several people she knew and worked with were arrested.
“[When you are] talking to someone who says, ‘You know, after I finish talking to you they’re going to come by and arrest me’ and knowing that they’re probably being tortured, it’s hard,” Villarosa said. “It’s really hard.”
Villarosa said technology and good friends help her to stay connected to home.
“The nature of communications when I first came into the Foreign Service there was no Internet, it wasn’t easy to make phone calls like this,” Villarosa said. “It’s such a different experience now. You’re not quite as far away as when I went on my first tour in Bogota, Colombia. Then, even though I was much closer to the US, I was gone.”
Villarosa said that she is enjoying her time in Mauritius and Seychelles, a dramatic change of pace from the crisis-prone hotspots she formerly found herself in. She describes them as beautiful, democratic and politically stable tropical islands. However, Villarosa noted she is grateful for all her assignments.
“I love living in different countries,” Villarosa said. “When you live in a country, you understand much more about different cultures, different peoples, why they are the way they are. It’s been fascinating because I’ve lived in very interesting countries. I’ve had incredible experiences. I can’t imagine that there was a better career out there for me because it’s given me the variety that I really like. It’s just given me so many good memories, where at the time I was not particularly pleased to be in one place or the other, but with distance the good things that I got out of it … It’s just an incredible life if you want to learn about different people and different cultures and make a difference.”
Villarosa said she encourages students to reach out to her if they have questions or want to learn more about diplomacy. The test to enter the Foreign Service is free and can be taken as many times as one wants — Villarosa took the exam twice. She said she frequently hears from UNC students, but not students from the College, a school that she credits with giving her more than just a J.D.
“The good thing about law school for someone who doesn’t want to be a lawyer is it teaches you how to analyze issues,” Villarosa said. “I actually have to do that in my Foreign Service career. You deal with lots of challenging situations where there’s no right or wrong answer so you have to be able to look at all the things, consider all the possibilities and negotiate, try to find something that works…”
Villarosa has been to the outskirts of Williamsburg while visiting friends, but she said it’s been a while since she’s visited the College. The law school moved from St. George Tucker Hall to the Marshall-Wythe School of Law building in 1980. Still, Villarosa’s favorite part of campus hasn’t been altered too much.
“The part of the campus that I know the best is the old part of the campus,” Villarosa said. “That doesn’t really change.”