Virginia Tech alumnus addresses foreign policy challenges at the U.S. Department of State
Experiences and relationships in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics prepared Thomas Debass for the global stage.
If you need advice on a prosperous career, ask alumnus Thomas Debass.
Debass came to Virginia Tech ready to change the world — only he didn’t know how he would do that until much later.
His journey began during his junior year, when he took an international agricultural development and trade class with George Norton, a professor at the time in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The class made such an impact on Debass that he approached Norton to be his advisor during an independent study he had to complete for his undergraduate degree, which he earned in economics in 1997.
Norton also led the Integrated Pest Management Collaborative Research Support Program, now called Feed the Future Innovation Lab, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the government’s global hunger and food security initiative. Debass was intrigued by the applied economics of the program.
Norton suggested that Debass consider graduate school and encouraged him to seek an internship. Debass applied for an internship with the African Development Bank in West Africa and got the position, where he experienced first-hand how economic development affects the world.
“I knew at this moment that I wanted to pursue international development as my career,” he said.
Norton’s impact on Debass’ decision to pursue his interests didn’t stop there. The Integrated Pest Management Collaborative Research Support Program underwrote his graduate studies at Virginia Tech. Debass said Norton “gave me confidence” and that he owes a great deal of gratitude to him for shaping his future. He also is grateful to other faculty such as Professor Emeritus Dan Taylor, Professor Bradford Mills, and Professor David Orden, who opened his eyes to the world of international trade and development.
During his time in the master’s program, Debass traveled to Bangladesh and Uganda to collect data to strengthen the country’s resilience to current and emerging crop threats. This experiential learning opportunity, coupled with his previous internship, would later prove to be instrumental to his career.
After graduating in 2000 with his master’s degree in agricultural and applied economics, Debass got his first job with the U.S. Development Finance Corporation — formerly known as the Overseas Private Investment Corporation — which is an international development finance agency of the U.S. government. He said he was able to get this job because his degree program offered curriculum on the economic impact assessment of investment.
In 2007, Debass took on another role with the organization that supported his graduate degree, the U.S. Agency for International Development. As a senior technical advisor, he was part of executing how the U.S. government partnered with the private sector to leverage traditional foreign assistance programs.
His degree gave him the knowledge to excel in this role.
“Learning this as a student and learning how investments and development assistance gets implemented was fascinating to me, and being on the other side of the equation allowed me to put that very knowledge to work,” he said.
Today, Debass is managing director and chief partnerships officer for the U.S. Department of State.
People tend to look at foreign policy as the sole responsibility of their respective government, he said, but the implications of those policies have a wider implication for society.
His work revolves around trying to figure out who cares about the foreign policy challenges the U.S. faces around the world — in essence, what are the hot topics of the day such as the Ukraine crisis or climate change?
Whatever the issue, Debass has to ask himself who else cares about that particular issue. Is it corporations, startups, investors, foundations, faith-based groups, academia, diaspora groups, or nongovernmental entities?
“Our job is to tell these organizations they should care and here is why,” said Debass.
All the successes Debass has experienced goes back to Virginia Tech and the education he received, the caring faculty who mentored him, and the melting pot of culture he experienced. He also remembers the connections he made at Virginia Tech.
“I lived in Thomas Hall, and to be honest with you, I didn't visit Virginia Tech before coming as I had to travel overseas. So, I didn't get a chance to submit my paperwork. So, how I chose Thomas Hall … well it is my first name after all.”
He’s glad he made that choice. He developed friendships with people he would have never met otherwise. In fact, one of his favorite memories is of playing soccer on the drillfield with his roommates and friends.
“To this day, I am still playing soccer with my friends from Virginia Tech.” This past July, Debass, along with his college roommate and fellow classmates, played the Icarus Cup soccer tournament at Drexel University’s Vidas Athletic Complex, as well as at Temple University.
With an established career, Debass’ goal is to give back the knowledge he has learned. In addition to his job with the U.S. Department of State, he is an adjunct professor with George Washington University teaching Business and Society: Strategic Foresight and Startup City: Austin, and he is passionate about startups and storytelling.
His advice to students highlights two things: focus and foresight.
“Focus is a rare commodity these days because we are highly distracted. In an ever-increasing distracted world take the time to unwind and take the time to focus on something you care about. In my days as a college student, it was just the thing you did, now it's like a superpower,” said Debass. “The other advice: foresight. The ability to know what's coming, I think that's one of the key ingredients that I learned a great deal from Virginia Tech.”
Debass says that focus and foresight go together and that “you have to be focused to understand what the signals are telling you. Then you can align yourself to your preferred career path.” Having this depth of understanding he feels will allow anyone to invent their own future.
Debass was named a 2020 Service to America Medal finalist, alongside Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical advisor to President Biden, for his work on public-private partnerships that advance America’s foreign policy interests.