The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

Sort Interviews by Affiliation or Theme

Mary Yates Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Chris Petersen.

May 15, 2014


Mary Barbara Carlin was born in Portland, Oregon in 1946 and graduated from Portland's Roosevelt High School in 1964. That same year she began undergraduate studies at Oregon State University, where she majored in English and pledged Kappa Kappa Gamma. As a junior, Carlin held a student job at the Memorial Union making ditto copies of class materials. That summer, she used the wages from this job to fund her first trip to Europe. Another summer was spent working in Washington, D.C. as a clerk for the Labor Department. Travel and government service would later become defining elements of Carlin's life.

Upon graduating from OSU in 1968, Carlin moved to the East Coast in search of teaching opportunities. After two years at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School near Washington, D.C., Carlin was accepted into the Comparative East-West Humanities Program at New York University, where she pursued a masters degree and, later, a Ph.D. in Asian Studies. The program incorporated travel as a piece of the curriculum, and through it Carlin made stays Paris and Kyoto, as well as a Fulbright trip to India.

During her doctoral candidacy, Carlin took and passed the Foreign Service Officer Test, at which point she chose to forgo continued studies in favor of entering the diplomatic corps. Carlin began her career in diplomacy in 1980 as a public affairs officer, stationed in Korea, and charged with running an American cultural center. Four years later, Carlin was relocated to the Philippines, which was then in the midst of a revolution. It was in the Philippines that Carlin gained her first experience in formal negotiation. During this time she also met John Yates, a fellow diplomat who would later become her husband.

In 1991 Mary Yates began a professional association with Africa that shaped much of the remainder of her career. Assigned to a diplomatic post in Zaire, Yates gained first-hand exposure to the genocide taking place in nearby Rwanda. In 1995 she was moved to the U.S. embassy in Paris for four years before, in 1999, receiving her first ambassadorship, to the Republic of Burundi. During her three years in this position, Yates was involved in brokering peace between warring factions of Hutu and Tutsi tribespeople. This effort was led by Nelson Mandela, with whom Yates worked throughout the process.

In 2002 Yates was named ambassador to Ghana, where she was again involved in peace talks, this time involving opposing sides clashing in Liberia. Ghana also presented a larger and more complicated bureaucracy than had Burundi, and Yates was able to impact governmental policies related to a common currency and genetically modified organisms, among other issues.

In 2005 Yates returned to Europe for a two-year stint as foreign policy advisor to the United States European Command, which coordinates foreign policy for an area encompassing ninety-two countries. Following that she served for another two years as deputy to the commander for civil-military activities in the United States Africa Command.

In 2009 Yates returned to the United States for a position as senior director for African affairs within President Obama's National Security Council. In this role, she helped to develop a national security strategy for U.S. interests in Africa. Yates spent the final eight months of her career as a special assistant to the President for Africa and as Charge d'Affairs to Sudan. She retired from the diplomatic corps in 2012.

Mary Yates was invited by her alma mater to deliver the commencement address at OSU's 2007 graduation exercises. This event renewed her connection to Oregon State University and led her to develop a close relationship with the University Honors College. She has since endowed the Barbara Carlin and Mary Barbara Carlin Yates Honors Scholarship, which recognizes her mother's influence in shaping the interests that have propelled her through life.