Faith Whittlesey served as the highest-ranking woman in President Ronald Reagan’s White House from 1983–85 and has enjoyed successful careers in politics, law, diplomacy, education, and foundation work, despite obstacles facing women at the time. She served twice as U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland, a journey she credits, in part, to her year in Europe with the Experiment in International Living.
It wasn’t her first time abroad; three years earlier, at the age of 16, she had participated in an American Field Service program to Germany. Keen to work on her German language skills and smitten by the culture, cathedrals, and castles of central Europe, Faith went to Austria with the Experiment in 1958.
“It was a very positive experience,” she recalls. “It opened my eyes to different points of view. There were parts of the world that didn’t view things the same way we did.”
Her memories of the program include late night talks with her host family, who lived in a town close to the Yugoslav border, classical music concerts, and the joys of Apfelstrudel.
That trip — particularly a stop in Sarajevo, where World War I began — sparked a personal interest in the Cold War. Faith read everything she could about the conflict while finishing her undergraduate education at Wells College in New York and law school at the University of Pennsylvania, both on full-tuition scholarships.
During law school, Faith worked as a substitute teacher in the Philadelphia school system and upon graduation, got a job as a government lawyer, rewriting Pennsylvania’s banking code. She also served as a law clerk for a Federal District Court Judge, Assistant State Attorney, and Assistant U.S. Attorney. In 1972, she was elected as a Representative in the Pennsylvania Legislature.
Faith met Ronald Reagan in 1975 and campaigned for him a year later in Pennsylvania during his bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
“We both believed the Soviet Union could be defeated,” she says.
After Reagan was elected, Faith accepted a position as a Senior Staff member in the West Wing, serving as Assistant to the President for Public Liaison.
Later she was offered a post as ambassador.
“I wanted to go to a German-speaking country, she recalls, “but Germany and Austria were already taken. So I picked Switzerland.”
Faith served twice for a total of almost five years as U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland and upon her return to the U.S., practiced law in New York.
Faith took up the challenge. Drawing from her early experience in youth programs overseas — including The Experiment in International Living — she created an annual Young Leaders Conference, with the purpose to engage future American and Swiss leaders in an intensive week-long dialogue in Switzerland.
Twenty five years later, the Young Leaders Conference has more than 1,000 alumni, many of whom have reached the highest ranks in government, business, academia, and the media.
“Thanks to Reagan for the opportunity to go to Switzerland and programs like The Experiment in International Living that taught me a lot about the benefits of sending tomorrow’s leaders abroad,” she adds.
Stephanie Genkin is consultant for World Learning and an alumna of the Young Leaders Conference (2005)