WHERE ARE THEY NOW: U.S. diplomat returns to Aiken
Editor's note: This is one in an occasional series spotlighting people who grew up in Aiken, and where they are now.
A U.S. diplomat and former Aiken resident is back in town this week.
Julie McKay, a South Aiken High School alumna, is soaking up the sights and sounds of Aiken with her family before she leaves on Sunday for Washington, D.C., to begin training for her next trip abroad.
McKay, 47, has served two tours as a U.S. diplomat in Central America. She's currently on home leave after a three-year stint at the U.S. Embassy in Panama. Her next stop is Lesotho, a tiny African country landlocked within South Africa.
McKay, who has learned four languages, said she's enjoyed her week in Aiken so far.
“It's delightful,” said McKay, who is staying with her mother this week. “I've been taking my kids around and showing them all the places that we've lived, showing them different houses that I've lived in and different places I've worked.”
McKay was born in Greenville, but moved to Aiken for her sophomore year of high school, graduating in 1984. After moving to Tennessee for college, she returned to Aiken for about two years before attending graduate school at the University of South Carolina.
She then taught art at Pelion High School in Lexington County before she and her husband, Rhett Power, sold their house and cars and joined the Peace Corps.
“It was an opportunity that we always wanted to do,” said McKay, who spent a year of college studying abroad in Paris. “We wanted to try something new, do something different and get a new experience.”
McKay and her husband taught at a university in Uzbekistan, but their tour was cut short after a year when Peace Corps volunteers were evacuated following the Sept. 11 attacks.
They returned to Aiken for just more than a month, but McKay soon returned to Central Asia – this time Tajikistan – to manage U.S. government-funded exchange programs. After about 18 months, she and her husband returned stateside to have their first son.
She spent another two years doing the same job in Kazakhstan before returning to Aiken to have her second son.
“We kept returning because we felt very interested and connected to the region,” McKay said of her third trip to Central Asia. “The people there are very warm. They will give you their last piece of bread. We kind of felt like we weren't done in the region.”
After a few more years in South Carolina, McKay took a job as a U.S. State Department foreign service officer. Her first tour was to El Salvador, where she worked as a consular officer and staff assistant to U.S. Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte. There, she met President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton when they visited the embassy.
After more than two years in El Salvador, she served three years as the public information officer at the U.S. Embassy in Panama.
Now a mid-level officer within the State Department, McKay is looking forward to handling a bigger role on her third tour as a U.S. diplomat.
McKay said the U.S. Embassy in Lesotho is small, but that she'll be the head of the public affairs office. She expects to stay at least two years.
“We wanted to go to Africa. We've been in Central Asia and Central America,” McKay said. “Technically, to advance and continue to be promoted in the foreign service, you need to have different regions. The idea is that you're available to serve worldwide.”
“It's just our chance to do something different and be in a different place, which is the reason we got into it in the first place. We continue to want to learn about other cultures, see new things, have different experiences and have our kids see different things.”
For now, McKay is enjoying being stateside.
“It's nice to represent the United States overseas, but it's also nice to be back home.” she said.
Avery Wilks is an intern at the Aiken Standard. He is a senior at the University of South Carolina.