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Discovering Her Power

By Michelle Choate
Jessica Wilson-Jones ’10 finds inspiration, hope and courage to lead a purposeful life.
When she was about 10 years old, Jessica Wilson-Jones ’10 moved to the United States from Egypt with her parents. Her Egyptian-born mother and African American father were at the center of her rapidly expanding universe and a powerful fire in the core of the person she would later become. These two beautiful, resilient people, as she refers to them, raised her to be principled, passionate and patient (and she’d make good use of all three qualities, especially patience). They gave her access to a world where unimagined doors could be opened—doors that they never had access to. But as she was often the only Black, Muslim female wherever she went, finding the key to unlocking those doors was a journey of discovery that Wilson-Jones would primarily have to map out on her own. 

Wilson-Jones has come a long way from being the girl who had to adjust to life in a new country. She now represents the United States as a foreign affairs officer at the U.S. Department of State, the latest in an impressive series of positions she’s held at the federal level. 

During childhood and up to her professional career, Wilson-Jones learned to harness her unique lived experience to strengthen her sense of self and hone a worldview guided by empathy and insight. “Everyone comes into situations with assumptions about the way I navigate the world as a Black woman, an Arab woman, a Muslim woman,” she says. “There are judgments and assumptions made about who I am, where I am from—my culture, customs, way of navigating the world—from both sides of the pond. Just because I view things differently doesn’t mean I don’t bring knowledge and value. If anything, I am able to bridge the good from both sides of my worlds—and see where gaps exist from both ends.

Be Patient, Observe, Assess, Respect, Then Speak Up 

With her ability to read a room and understand people, and a desire to use that understanding to bridge gaps and bring people together, Wilson-Jones began to leverage her duality of culture and upbringing into a philosophy of sorts, a toolkit for human interaction. No matter what the situation, she approached it with the same personal mandate: First, enter with a keen eye and the patience to observe. Don’t rush to make an assumption or change the status quo from day one. Listen and let words and actions reveal a person’s character or the disposition of your new environment. Assess their experiences and motivations. Respect their priorities and objectives, even if you know there are gaps or opportunities for positive change. After that information is fully processed, speak up and let others know what you can offer. 

Wilson-Jones had already started refining her philosophy by the time she arrived at La Jolla Country Day School as a ninth-grader. Finding only a handful of students who looked like her was understandably unnerving. “It’s scary to think, Do I belong here? Am I navigating this right?” says Wilson-Jones. “I remember thinking to myself that the best course of action would be to get a sense of where I was and what the dynamics were. Then use that knowledge to help me navigate this setting.” 

During her four-year tenure at LJCDS, Wilson-Jones was seen as an ambitious student leader who was passionate about making a positive difference in the world. 

She caught the attention of George Mitrovitch, president of the City Club of San Diego, who would later become her mentor. Wilson-Jones first met Mitrovitch when he visited Mr. [Jonathan] Shulman’s AP History class to discuss civic engagement. Given her desire to be an active citizen, she became part of a group of LJCDS students that Mitrovitch invited to different City Club events. They stayed in touch until he passed away in 2019. 

“George personified what it means to navigate the world with humility and kindness,” Wilson-Jones says. “We couldn’t be more different. Here was a white man in his late 70s who grew up in my dad’s era of American history—the injustice, the violence, the fight. I never had a chance to clearly articulate to him how much I watched and listened to how he navigated the world—his integrity, his persistence, his affable laugh and character. Whenever anyone reaches out to me, I always respond and offer advice, because we’re all just trying to figure it out. To mentor someone else the way George mentored me reinforces that no matter what you do for a living, what position you have in our arbitrary hierarchy of life, the only thing that matters is your character and how you approach other people. George opened up doors for me that led me to where I am today, but more importantly, he reminded me, always, that I too bring value and voice. I’ve been privileged to get these opportunities, particularly the ones I received being at Country Day.” 

It’s Complicated 

As she embarked on the next leg of her formal education, Wilson-Jones continued to sharpen her observational skills and sense of dynamics around her. Everything in her arsenal would come in handy as she headed into a career in service and government. After studying international relations and public policy at Tufts University, she returned to San Diego in 2014 to work as a communications and outreach director for the International Rescue Committee. In 2016, she moved to Washington, D.C., to begin work with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in the Office of Policy for the Middle East and North Africa, first as a policy analyst, and later as an acting director. 

When the Obama administration ended, appointees such as herself had to find new jobs. Wilson-Jones landed at the State Department, where she worked for more than three years as a senior programs officer for the Fulbright Program, working with students from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh. In early 2020, just as the world was becoming overwhelmed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Wilson-Jones became a foreign affairs officer for Near East Affairs with a specific focus on another overwhelming entity, Syria. 

As a foreign affairs officer, Wilson-Jones serves as a liaison between the State Department and her colleagues in the field. She works with teams in D.C. and the region to shape the guidelines for U.S. efforts with Syria, specifically on stabilization assistance efforts. As with many of the big issues challenging our world, there is no easy fix for Syria. 

“Developing and supporting stabilization assistance to Syria has been incredible and heart-wrenching at the same time,” explains Wilson-Jones. “It’s been rewarding to witness the ways in which foreign institutions and governments are supporting the stabilization efforts in Syria given the challenges there. But the scope of the issues is insurmountable. Whenever someone asks me about what’s going on in Syria, my response is always, ‘There are really smart, capable people doing yeoman’s work in Syria; I’m just here to rally behind them. It’s a complicated portfolio, and you have to remain patient more than anything.’”

A Room with a Point of View

The state department is not known for being the most diverse or progressive organization, but Wilson-Jones believes there is hope for change. She navigates a room where she is usually the only Black woman, in the same way she has countless times before, and with the acuteness born of her own experiences. 

“When you are working with people who have various frames of reference and outlooks, you have to nudge the discussion toward things that might never have been discussed in this group before,” she explains. “Simply by my being present, by bringing a different perspective and using my voice, I am forcing others to think about things in a new light. I’m pushing change.” 

In the four years that she has been at the State Department, Wilson-Jones has witnessed a surge in conversation and efforts around diversity, equity and inclusion. “I can’t speak for the entire U.S. federal system, but I can say for my bureau, we’ve been working hard on these efforts and taking to heart the reality of what the State Department is. It’s ‘pale, male and Yale’—a small contingency of people who come from a background of privilege and access. And I acknowledge it’s the same privilege and access I was given at a very young age, so I know how it works.” 

The Department is reviewing its recruitment and hiring practices to shift the conversation and pipelines to guarantee new people at the table. As Wilson-Jones can attest, the first people at the table who look different often have the hardest time. She admits it’s sometimes exhausting being the only voice of her kind in the room. But then she thinks to herself, If I don’t do it, and others like me don’t do it, then who will? Who’s going to make way for the next generation to come in and feel much more comfortable being their authentic selves in that space?

Loss and Remaining Committed

The work Wilson-Jones is engaged in is not for those impatient with the often glacial pace and lack of progress inherent in a massive bureaucracy. Exceptional minds and extremely caring people put their hearts into creating programs and executing policies that sometimes amount to nothing. The heart is something those in this line of work need to do their best to protect. 

In over a decade in this field, Wilson-Jones has become invested in the people and countries she works with. As a result, the tragedies in Afghanistan with the Taliban’s takeover in late summer 2021 were particularly painful for her. “I worked on Afghanistan for three years on the Fulbright program. We brought over 200 master’s and Ph.D. students to the U.S. during that time. I have beautiful memories of all of them,” explains Wilson-Jones. “They would come to D.C., and I’d take them out to lunch or coffee. Every single one of them has an incredible, beautiful story of triumph, resilience, pain and trauma, but they were so happy and positive despite all that. We viewed each other as friends, so what happened in August broke my heart. Three women I worked with that were in prestigious ministerial positions lost all of that instrumental work in a day; it all just disappeared. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I was and am still heartbroken.” 

In the midst of this humanitarian tragedy, Wilson-Jones was forced to face a more personal loss, the death of her beloved father. “My dad was a major factor in my education and was my guiding light throughout my academic, professional and personal life,” she shares. “He is the reason why I am where I am today and continue to pave the way forward for others.” 

Yet amid her private heartache, she continued to do all she could to help her Afghan friends. “I had to be a pillar and support my family, but also these friends, because they matter,” says Wilson-Jones. “But at the same time, I felt helpless. I called on friends on the Hill, joined multiple task forces and tapped on DoD colleagues coordinating the airlifts. This crisis was a battle where so many roadblocks were present across all levels of government. Some we were able to get out, others are still stuck in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Albania—but we remain in touch and will not give up.”

Moving the Needle 

Wilson-Jones embraces both the peaks and valleys in each phase of her life as opportunities for growth in her perspective. 

“It’s amazing how, with each chapter in your life, your perspective and priorities change,” she shares. “I’m really happy where I am right now; I love the work I do. But my husband and I are expecting our first child, and our lives will take on a new, if not added, meaning and priority. I’m already starting to think about pursuing opportunities that will allow my family to gain all the joys out of life. My dad was at every track meet, every basketball game; my mom was there for every pickup and drop-off. They were there all the time, and that was so important to me, and I want to be able to offer that to my family.” 

Whatever it is that she does, family concerns aren’t her only priority. “I want to move the needle forward in bringing good to the world,” she says. “That desire is deep in my core. How I might achieve that in the future is not clear. I could leave the State Department next year and go into nonprofit. I could start my own business. I just know that whatever it is, I want to be surrounded by family; I want to be surrounded by friends. And I want to make sure that we are doing good at the end of the day. When I come home and rest my head on the pillow at night, I want to know without a doubt that we tried 150% to create a slightly better world today, for tomorrow.” 

Photo by Stephen Gosling

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