Waco Tribune-Herald: Carlos Sanchez: Visit by foreign dignitary shows first lady Alice Starr in her element

June 13, 2011

Reprinted with the permission of the Waco Tribune-Herald.

Tribune-Herald editor
Sunday June 12, 2011

The invitation from Baylor University first lady Alice Starr seemed innocuous enough.

Kenya's minister of information technology and communications was going to be visiting, Starr wrote. Would I like to join them on a tour of the campus?

Thinking it would be a great opportunity to learn more about Alice Starr, I readily agreed. What I didn't expect was such an impressive display of Baylor's efforts at international diplomacy.

Starr had met Samuel L. Poghisio last month when she was leading a women's leadership mission to Nairobi.

When she learned that Poghisio was coming to the United States to encourage filmmaking in Kenya, she immediately invited him to stop by Waco and visit Baylor.

Last Tuesday, he and an aide arrived on campus after visiting Hollywood. They were greeted by an impressively choreographed tour of Baylor that showed off Alice Starr's acumen as a diplomat and ambassador for the university and Waco.

The significance of a Baylor-Kenya connection didn't initially register with me until I came to understand the international dance that Baylor plays as it looks for opportunities for mission trips for its students abroad.

Nairobi has played host to several mission trips involving student and faculty. And the logistics involved in such trips would make any military commander giddy at how Baylor officials pull it off.

And, to my naive surprise, one of the fundamental considerations for mission trips is political considerations.

Political stability of a foreign country is essential because safety is a primary concern for Baylor, Starr explained to me.

That means, for instance, that Mexico is currently off-limits despite its proximity and long-term relationship with American Christian groups.

And while Kenya may be one of the more stable democracies in Africa, it has not been completely painless, as our Kenyan visitor, also a member of parliament, would soon explain to us candidly.

Poghisio, at Starr's urging, shared with us an overview of his political career -- which has been fraught with tensions and even a few perils as his star has consistently risen in Kenya.

Early in his career, Poghisio was excommunicated from his own political party and essentially lived in exile while engaging in post-graduate work in the United States.

He returned to Kenya at a defining moment in its modern political history and the country soon voted on a new constitution.

With a firm but gentle line of questioning, I witnessed Starr and Baylor officials assess Kenya's political stability as it enters a period of new elections for a president, an office that constitutionally has term limits.

This included asking Poghisio about his own prospects to become Kenya's next president -- a question he demurred in answering at first before ultimately signaling his interest in the office.

Baylor has planned mission trips to at least 10 foreign countries this year and, as Starr explained, there is careful consideration to having longer term relationships with these countries to combat a perception these trips are Christian vacations.

Starr even taught the minister a thing about his own country after sharing with him that health experts on these mission trips had assessed that, in some parts of Kenya, a leading health risk is high blood pressure because of the people's diets.

At every stop on campus, a coordinated effort was on full display to teach Poghisio about Baylor and Waco.

Of course, this world is about far more than mission trips and far-flung movie productions. But through her unique abilities in diplomacy, Alice Starr is bringing that world a little closer together.

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