Great journeys begin with a single step

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On a fine and sunny day on campus this spring, Signe Burgstaller ’88 talked with Denison students about the journey that led to her current position as ambassador and deputy permanent representative of the Permanent Mission of Sweden to the United Nations.

Burgstaller spoke in Associate Professor Veerendra Lele’s class, “International Studies 100: The Making of the Modern World,” about the United Nations, her work there, and how the organization is structured. She included some behind-the-scenes info about how countries are elected onto the Security Council, and the challenges—as well as opportunities—involved in working with countries and states that are so different from one another. Later the same day, she addressed a campus-wide forum focusing on current events at the United Nations.

As a young woman from Sweden, Burgstaller had never been to Denison before she stepped foot on campus in the fall of 1984. (This was before the advent of widespread home computer use and the Internet). But she adapted quickly to her new American home-away-from-home, and what began as a one-year exploratory experience of living and learning abroad morphed into a full four-year liberal arts education.

In May of 1988, fresh out of Denison with her magna cum laude political science degree in hand, Burgstaller stopped in New York to visit some friends on her way home to Sweden. On a lark, she dropped into the United Nations building to put in an application, and serendipitously stepped into a job leading U.N. tours in English, German and, of course, Swedish.

Burgstaller used her year at the U.N. to get a good sense of the internal workings of the place. It was a time of major transformations in the Eastern Bloc, and the air of excitement and change was palpable. When Mikhail Gorbachev, the last head of state of the Soviet Union, addressed the U.N., Burgstaller took advantage of her proximity and sneaked into the General Assembly to hear him speak. And she began to dream of serving her country, working as a U.N. delegate.

Burgstaller cited her liberal arts education as extremely valuable as she worked to fulfill her dream. “Studying abroad provided a great advantage,” she said. “Besides all the benefits of learning to adapt to a new environment, it helped me to get a thorough understanding of the American viewpoint, while the broad curriculum allowed me insights into many disciplines—my knowledge base was very well-rounded.”

When she returned to Sweden in 1989, Burgstaller applied to the International Graduate School in Stockholm, where she earned her advanced degree in social science/international relations. She became a member of the Swedish Foreign Service in 1992, holding diplomatic postings in Prague, Washington, D.C., and Pristina, before becoming a deputy director for humanitarian affairs in the Global Security Department of the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs in 2003.

Burgstaller realized her dream of serving her country at the U.N. in June of 2005 when she was assigned as a counselor and special assistant to the Office of the President of the U.N. General Assembly at the United Nations.

From 2007 to August 2010, Burgstaller was the director and deputy head of the Security Policy Department of the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, covering international organizations, international crisis management and humanitarian affairs, before her current assignment as ambassador and deputy permanent representative of the Permanent Mission of Sweden to the United Nations.

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