Lee Satterfield at podium

Roads not taken

Diplomat Lee Satterfield missed her first stop but ended up just where she wanted

When Lee Satterfield boarded the shuttle outside Capstone en route to her first journalism class at the University of South Carolina, she was so nervous about finding the Carolina Coliseum that she missed her stop and made a loop around campus instead.

The experience earned her some ribbing from her roommate, but Satterfield had the last laugh. Within a few years, the ’89 College of Journalism alumna found her way to the White House, where she was hired to schedule travel for Vice President Al Gore. A year later, she landed another White House job — this time as a presidential scheduler for President Bill Clinton.

Three decades later, she is still in the political arena, though with much bigger responsibilities. At the end of 2021, Satterfield was confirmed by the U.S Senate as assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

Established in 1961, the ECA strengthens ties between the U.S. and other countries through cultural exchange. Fulbright is ECA’s most well-known program, but there are countless others operating in more than 160 countries. To date, more than 1 million people worldwide have benefitted from ECA programs, including prominent Gamecocks such as former basketball standout and current Board of Trustees member Alex English and current interim President Harris Pastides.

“The idea is that we’re building a network and a community of people who will become leaders in their own country one day,” Satterfield says. “And if not in government, in other ways – in civil society, in entrepreneurship, in business.”

To hear her talk, you might assume her sights were set on public service from day one, but the Greenville native initially came to USC dreaming of a career in broadcast. It was an internship with the U.S. House of Representatives early in her college career that got her thinking about other paths.

“That was instrumental in leading me to Washington,” she says. “I had a firsthand view of how policy is determined, how policy becomes law, how government should and can work for people and the role that politics can play in that. I just became fascinated with a world that I was not familiar with because that’s not a world where I was from.”

And just what world was that? Her dad was longtime Furman University football coach Jimmy Satterfield, but she had family in Columbia. Her dream coming out of high school was to become a TV journalist — “I used to tell everybody when I was a little girl that I was going to be the next Barbara Walters,” she admits with a touch of disbelief. She ultimately earned a B.A. in journalism with a concentration in advertising and briefly entertained the idea of a career on Madison Avenue.

None other than Hootie and the Blowfish guitarist Mark Bryan disabused her of that notion. The two were in an advertising class together, and three decades later she can still recall the future rock star’s class project — an ad for a clunky late-80s’ Brother word processor that riffed on the lyrics of the 1960s Hollies hit, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.”

“That’s probably why I did not go into advertising, because I thought, ‘I’m never going to be that clever,’” Satterfield says, laughing. “I have other skill sets for sure, but I don’t know that creativity is particularly one of them.”

The idea is that we’re building a network and a community of people who will become leaders in their own country one day.

Lee Satterfield

Those “other skills” were soon recognized, though, by legendary USC political science professor Don Fowler. A former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, Fowler was a powerbroker in state and national Democratic politics and the go-to guy on campus for aspiring politicos looking for advice.

“He was amazing to me and thousands of others,” Satterfield says. “I remember going to him and saying, ‘I think I want to see what the field is like.’ I naively asked him if there were careers in the field of politics.”

Naive or not, Fowler helped her land a rank-and-file job with Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. After Election Day, Satterfield moved from her house near Five Points to Little Rock, Arkansas, where she worked on Clinton’s transition team, answering phones in the basement of the governor’s mansion. Next, she took the job with Gore, then the job with Clinton.

Over the next 30 years, Satterfield would navigate the corridors of D.C. power. She spent four years at the U.S. Department of Labor, first as deputy chief of staff and then chief of staff, and five at the State Department during the administration of President Barack Obama. Before returning to the State Department in 2021, she spent six years as president and COO of the Meridian International Center, a nonpartisan diplomacy organization that works closely with the State Department, government agencies and NGOs.

“I’ve come a long way from not learning how to navigate the shuttle,” she jokes, but it’s true. Her latest loop may have taken her back to the same address where she served as deputy assistant secretary 11 years ago, but the new gig is next level.

And she couldn’t be happier. She calls the assistant secretary position “the best job in all of federal government,” in part because the bureau’s mission resonates across both sides of the aisle. She was appointed by Democratic President Joe Biden but introduced at her confirmation hearing last July by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.

“That’s just a great example of the broad bipartisan sup­­­port of these programs where a sitting Republican senator intro­duces one of President Biden’s nominees with his full support of my nomination, which was just a great moment for me,” she says. “Both Republicans and Demo­crats agree on why these programs within ECA are important to the United States and for the security of the country and the world.”

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