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A Virtual Cup of Coffee with U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink '87

photo of Bridget Brink

Bridget Brink is a proud 1987 graduate of East Grand Rapids High School.  She sees her lifelong commitment to public service as a U.S. diplomat as inextricably linked to her family and origins in Michigan and America’s Midwest, where she was raised on the values of hard work, doing your best, and never giving up. After earning her bachelor's degree from Kenyon College and master's in international relations and political theory at the London School of Economics, Brink joined the U.S. Department of State, starting her career as a U.S. diplomat in 1996.  As a career member of the U.S. Senior Foreign Service, she worked in Serbia, Georgia, and Uzbekistan as well as at the State Department and the National Security Council. She was U.S. Ambassador to the Slovak Republic from August, 2019, until her confirmation as Ambassador to Ukraine. She has led our diplomatic mission in Kyiv since May, 2022.

You can only have one: Rose’s caramel corn, an ice cream cone from Jersey Junction, or a Yesterdog. Which do you choose?
For me, it’s an easy choice: I would choose an ice cream cone from Jersey Junction, hands down. I not only spent much of my childhood eating ice cream in this East Grand Rapids landmark, but my family and kids also love the place. We also love that children’s author (and East Grand Rapids High School alum) Chris Van Allsburg’s mom founded this magical neighborhood ice cream shop, as The Polar Express is one of our all-time favorite family books and movies.
What was your path from East Grand Rapids to where you are now in life?
Well, I’d say no path is certain in high school so it’s important for all the young people to know that their future is not fixed and it's theirs to write.I went on to Kenyon College, did a year studying abroad which changed my life, and then went to London School of Economics.I was interested in government and applied for the U.S. Foreign Service.  I didn’t make it in the first time, but I persisted and entered 27 years ago.I’ve had the great privilege to serve our country overseas in Serbia, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Slovakia, and now Ukraine.I’ve also had the good fortune to have had a wonderful and incredibly supportive family - my husband (who is also a Foreign Service Officer) and our two boys, as well as my own family and extended family - along the way. The journey is not over and my current assignment to our U.S. diplomatic mission in Kyiv, is of great consequence to European security - and our own - in the context of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
What specific thing did you learn in East that has enabled you to be successful? 
I was a swimmer, and anyone who does that sport has to work hard and endure a lot of physical discomfort: 6:30 a.m. workouts in the middle of Michigan winter, swimming every summer morning from 7:00-9:00 a.m. to maintain your conditioning, and the dreaded “two-a-days” in the weeks before school began each fall. We used to say, “No pain, no gain.” Butch Briggs and Joe O’Brien were inspirational coaches and my teammates were also my best friends. So we learned teamwork in this environment.  We also learned to cheer each other on, in practices and at meets, as we only won - or lost - as a team. And we won a lot. I was not one of the superstars but I enjoyed being a part of something bigger than myself.
What were you like in school? 
I was a hard worker in school but, like everyone else, I was also a high school kid and enjoyed hanging out with my friends.  I have great memories of Friday night football games, lunchtime in Gaslight Village, and walks around Reeds Lake.
Did you have a favorite teacher or class?
So many!  Mrs. Graham was a terrific English teacher.  I loved Mrs. Knack’s government class. Who could make physics as accessible as Mr. Wisz? Coach Barcheski, our beloved football coach, was enormously popular with his direct and no-nonsense style of teaching health and family. And my all-time favorite was Mr. Norman. I took four years of Latin, and it was because of him. I won’t forget the weekly spelling bee and Mr. Norman’s way of making Latin come to life for all of us. And my Latin served me well as a foundation for the other languages I studied over my career as a diplomat.I also owe a great deal to the school leadership and counselors. Mr. Cwayna had a way of gently but effectively guiding the student body while no one wanted to be outside class during class period and run into Mr. VanderWoude.  It was Mrs. Yeagle, our renowned guidance counselor, who set me on my current path by encouraging me to attend a small liberal arts school, at which I studied abroad and the experience led me to my current career.
If you had to choose one moment in one location to serve as the signature moment of your East school experience, what would it be?
I don’t know that I could choose just one. For me, coming from East offered a foundation of strong academics and a supportive family, friends, and community from which to pursue my interests and passions. It’s this foundation that I have relied upon as a diplomat living in hotspots around the world and which I take great strength from and enjoy coming back to each year.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
Just that the value of education is incalculable - to what kind of life you lead, how you look at and solve problems, and your ability to shape the world around you.  And not to worry about the grades or the college but to be a life-long learner. There are ups and downs throughout life and a strong educational foundation helps manage those with perspective and humility.
Do you stay in touch with many people from East Grand Rapids?
Absolutely. I have dear and close friends that I see every time I am back in town. It’s a great thing about the EGR community that you can pick up right where you left off.
What advice do you have for young East alums who are just starting out?
Find something that you are passionate about. If it doesn’t work out, find something else. Lead the way: Do not underestimate the power you have to shape the world in a positive way. Value where you come from and your family - it is the bedrock upon which you will build.
Who else would you like us to have a virtual cup of coffee with?
Elizabeth Welch, my swimming teammate and Associate Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court (see Elizabeth's Cup of Coffee interview).
Bonus question: What are you glad we didn’t ask you about?
How many times I skipped class senior year (just kidding).
To see Ambassador Brink in person, come to our Community Service and Distinguished Alumni Awards Dinner October 16.