Wos encourages students to travel, serve others during Bryan Lecture

Global travel and seeing the world from a different perspective are critically important for today’s students, says Aldona Wos, former U.S. Ambassador to Estonia. Wos talked about growing up in post-World War II Poland as well as her thoughts on leadership and service to others during the latest program in the Joseph M. Bryan Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series. Details...

Global travel and seeing the world from a different perspective are critically important for today’s students, says Aldona Wos, former U.S. Ambassador to Estonia.
Wos is a physician who served as ambassador from 2004 to 2006. During the Nov. 5 program, she talked about her life and career with moderator John Alexander, Elon’s Isabella Cannon Distinguished Visiting Professor of Leadership for 2007-2008. She said travel helps people step away from their comfort zones and interpret facts in a different light.

“Travel teaches you everything about yourself, about the world, about others. You can’t see things clearly when you’re too close,” Wos said, urging students to travel for pleasure, study and work.

Asked by an Elon law student about the perception of the U.S. in Europe and other parts of the world, Wos said it is true that America does not enjoy the stature it once did. Travel can improve that perception, Wos said, noting that Americans “are the best ambassadors for the United States” when they travel and make personal connections abroad. 

Wos gave a moving account of her early childhood in Poland and the surveillance of her father, a staunch anti-Communist, after World War II.

“The disturbing part is I remember the knocking on the door, and it would be the police coming to pick up my father,” Wos said. “We never knew where he was going, how long he would be gone, or if he would come back….The environment deprived all of us of our dignity and our rights.”

Wos’ father, grandfather and many other relatives had survived German concentration camps during the Holocaust, so the persecution at the hands of the Soviets was particularly cruel. Eventually, when Wos was 10 years old, her brother and her parents, were given the option of moving out of Poland to start a new life in the United States. The Wos family, which had been affluent in the days before the war, was stripped of virtually everything it owned before leaving Poland.

Wos said that experience taught her to have tremendous respect for her parents. “They basically left everything they owned to get on a boat, going to a country where they knew no one and didn’t speak English.”

As a teenager, Wos often volunteered to work summers as an intern, an experience that proved to be invaluable. “The reason I did that is that I wanted the option to learn. I found those summers were a phenomenal experience, meeting all kinds of people.”

In addition to serving people as a doctor, Wos is active on a number of community and philanthropic boards in the Triad. She said it is an important part of her life and encouraged students to embrace service in their daily lives.

“You have to be driven in a direction of seeking excellence and driven in a direction of helping other people.” Wos said. “How can you stay at home? There’s so much to do….If you succeed at public service, you have succeeded to yourself. You have rendered kindness to someone.”

As ambassador, Wos worked hard to balance the demands of the job with her responsibilities to her two young children and husband. In response to a student question about whether it’s possible to “have it all” and how she found time for everything, Wos said sometimes it was more important to look for her daughter’s missing sweater than to tackle the next big job at the embassy.

“Life consists of choices,” Wos said. “Sometimes you make mistakes. You can’t have it all, but you have to be comfortable with where you’re compromising.”