Amy Lillis BA ’04
As the Lewis & Clark overseas study program celebrates its 50th year, six alumni reflect on their life-changing journeys. Learn more about Amy Lillis BA ’04 below and then browse other alumni stories.
From: Kearney, Nebraska
Overseas Program: India, 2001
Currently: Foreign Service Officer, Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Amy Lillis stared, transfixed, at the television set in the lobby of the New Delhi YWCA as the events of 9/11 unfolded on the screen. The Lewis & Clark sophomore from Kearney, Nebraska, had arrived in India just days before on the college’s overseas study program. The days that followed “had a profound impact on the direction of my life and career,” says Amy. “We had such a distinct experience from that of the rest of our families and friends back in the United States. I’ve tried to understand and positively work with that difference ever since.”
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, parents called, worried about the students’ safety as Americans abroad, while everyone the group encountered in India responded with sincere sympathy. For weeks, Amy and her classmates talked at length about their American identity, asked pointed questions in the madrassas (schools that are often part of mosques), and tried to come to grips with “the tectonic shift in the world back home.”
My interest in fostering understanding through people-to-people exchange grew stronger. I wanted to further that goal in whatever I did, while also exposing myself to more worldviews.
One day, sitting cross-legged on the floor of a hut in the foothills of the Himalayas with a sadhu—a holy man—Amy had a tectonic shift of her own. “Much of the trip had been consumed by an internal struggle with the mysticism around me,” she says. “While I am now a devout agnostic, at the time I had both feet firmly in the camp of rationalism. Yet, listening to this intelligent and thoughtful man who knew, in his heart of hearts, that he was going on to nirvana—the cognitive dissonance was too much for my rational pride. I finally realized that each person’s reality is his own. Who are we to argue?”
Returning to Lewis & Clark, says Amy, “My interest in fostering understanding through people-to-people exchange grew stronger. I wanted to further that goal in whatever I did, while also exposing myself to more worldviews.” The political science major discovered the Foreign Service during an internship with the State Department in Washington, D.C., and there she found her path.
Amy has spent most of her Foreign Service career spreading the gospel of religious freedom and tolerance throughout the world. Following tours as a human rights officer in Lagos, Nigeria, and Istanbul, Turkey, she is currently on her third tour back in D.C., where she is completing her master’s degree at George Mason’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution while working in the Office of International Religious Freedom within the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. “My portfolio includes promoting and protecting religious freedom in places like Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey,” she says. “It involves everything from trying to save individual religious converts from death sentences to senior-level discussions promoting positive reform. Every day is dense and amazing.”
Read about how other alumni were influenced by their overseas experiences:
Overseas Program: Israel, 1980
Overseas Program: London, 1992
Overseas Program: Denmark/Greenland, 1983
Overseas Program: Japan, 1962
Overseas Program: East Africa, 1998