On Sept. 14, 2012, Sean Hantak ’98 watched the news on his TV with growing alarm. Just two hours earlier, he had returned home from his job at the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, Tunisia. Now, he learned, the embassy was under attack.
“I was gravely concerned for my colleagues trapped inside,” says Hantak, a U.S. diplomat assigned to the embassy in 2011. No Americans were killed in the attacks, which left at least six people dead and dozens injured.
“To see black smoke billowing into the air from one side of the compound and view masses of people scaling walls and loitering for hours in front, inflicting any damage possible, was gut-wrenching,” Hantak says. “The worst was to watch our flag — flown at half staff in honor of our fallen Ambassador to Libya, murdered two days earlier — removed and replaced with a Salafist black flag.”
The events rattled the newly democratic nation, where an intense campaign of civil resistance had led to the ousting of Tunisia’s hard-line government in January 2011 and sparked similar protests throughout the Arab world. Tunisia’s new government, headed by the moderate Islamic Ennahda party, condemned the attack and described the protestors as a small minority of extremists who were angered by an anti-Muslim video originating in the U.S.
If the attack marked an aberration from Tunisia’s traditionally tolerant brand of Islam, it nevertheless marked a new reality for Hantak. He vividly recalls the scene when he arrived at the embassy just a day after the attacks. “The compound was still smoldering when I entered the grounds. The parking lots and exterior looked like a lunar landscape, littered with broken glass from the shattered windows. My office was covered in a layer of ash.”
Organizing the evacuation of embassy personnel and their families, Hantak returned to Tunis while the embassy was still on “ordered departure.” His mission: “to assist with the rebuild — working in a challenging, fragile environment.”
Hantak’s eventful career abroad, which includes previous embassy positions in Bulgaria and Brazil, was launched at Illinois Wesleyan. A native of Homewood, Ill., he arrived at IWU as a freshman as an undeclared major. By his second semester, he had already set a course that led to his double major in international relations and Spanish, with an economics minor. Carmela Ferradans, professor of Hispanic Studies, encouraged his newfound direction. She also suggested Hantak consider studying in Madrid, where he later spent a year. “I lucked out to have her as my advisor,” Hantak says of Ferradans.
Asked to offer advice to IWU students considering an international career, Hantak says: “Patience, perspective and often times, sheer perseverance help to push that door open.”
Though Hantak has “probably applied some important facet from every course I took at Wesleyan to my career,” he cites foreign-language study as especially important. “Wherever I have served, I aimed to conduct public outreach to impress upon the audience the importance of learning foreign languages and then using these skills to be immersed in foreign cultures.
“Since I am always asked,” he adds, “I tell people that I have learned 10 languages in some form along this journey. I would not say that I am fluent in each — maintaining professional proficiency in six keeps me busy enough for now!”
After graduating from IWU, Hantak was selected for a young professionals exchange program jointly sponsored by the U.S. Congress and the German Bundestag. His year of study in Germany “landed me with German-speaking companies in the transportation, steel and medical technology sectors. I lived and worked in eight countries before joining the Foreign Service in 2005.”
As a U.S. diplomat in São Paulo, Brazil — the economic hub of Latin America — he focused on economic development and trade. He has also adjudicated scores of visa and immigration cases, including Bulgarian orphans relocated to America for adoption. In one especially memorable case, Hantak collaborated with Interpol to reunite an abducted 6-year-old boy with his Bulgarian-American mother.
He knows his work has life-changing implications for those who come to him for help. “It reminds me why I am serving and how lucky we are to be Americans.”
Since January, Hantak has been working as a program officer for the U.S. State Department’s Refugee Admissions Program for Latin America and the Caribbean. “Throughout our career, it is very useful for diplomats to serve a tour in Washington, D.C., to understand how the department works, especially with other government agencies.”
He knows some Americans continue to hold the stereotype that a diplomat’s life “is cushy, comprising receptions and exotic travel.” The attacks on the embassy in Tunis and other recent strikes against U.S. diplomatic posts were reminders that a great deal more is at stake. Despite the hazards of his work, Hantak remains undeterred in his dedication to Foreign Service and its goals.
“I am doing exactly what I was hoping to do someday,” he says.