Regional Director Office Of Foreign Missions Houston
Interview by: Heidi Powell-Prera, iF Magazine Editor in-Chief
Hon. Katherine “Kat” Ho is currently the Regional Director of the Office of Foreign Missions in Houston. She leads a team in overseeing diplomatic immunities and privileges for diplomatic communities spread throughout eight states (Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Arkansas). As an American diplomat (commissioned Foreign Service Officer) with over ten years of experience within the U. S. Department of State, Honorable Katherine Ho, has served in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe in various challenging positions Her most recent positions include Congressional Liaison with the House and Senate Intelligence Committees , and Watch Officer in State’s 24/7 Operations Center in coordination with the White House’s Situation Room. While serving as Lead Economic Officer on the United Kingdom Desk, she was the primary coordinator with the National Security Council and National Economic Council focused on Brexit. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, Hon. Katherine Ho practiced business law at one of Houston’s largest law firms. A native Texan, she is fluent in Mandarin Chinese, and Vietnamese. She has a J D from UCLA School of Law, an MA from Johns Hopkins University, and a BA from Vanderbilt University. She specializes in international economics, law, and national security.
It is an honor meeting with you and getting a chance to know you. I read that you are a native Texan. Where in Texas did you grow up? Can you tell us about your family and growing up in Texas.
It’s a pleasure meeting you too! I grew up in Houston, and I am so happy to be home. My family immigrated from Vietnam to Houston when I was nine years old. We all came here as political refugees after the fall of Saigon (or now known as Ho Chi Minh City), and then settled around the Houston area. Growing up in Texas was great as there’s something about this state that instills a sense of pride in being a Texan. Like many immigrants that come to this country seeking a better life, my siblings and I grew up understanding that hard work and grit were needed to improve our socio-economic status. There’s also a tremendous sense of public service in my family because my sister went on to serve in the Army and my brother is a local law enforcement officer. I am extremely proud of them. As hokey as it sounds, my family embodies the American Dream with what this country has given to us.
What made you decide to go from business law into the foreign service?
When I was working on my joint JD-MA degrees, many of my peers at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University went on to join the Foreign Service (FS). So, joining the FS was always in the back of my mind when I was practicing law in Houston. I was enjoying my work as an attorney, but there was always a quiet yearning for something a bit more adventurous and off the beaten path. So, I took the test, not expecting much as I had heard that the process was difficult and long. Well, it is. Surprisingly, I passed all the testing stages. I took a leap of faith in joining the State Department, not sure what to expect or how the career would turn out. All I knew was that at a minimum, I could always return to practicing law if the FS experience was not positive. Each country and each tour have been intellectually interesting and vastly different. I’m grateful how this career has allowed me to be a participant in several moments in our nation’s diplomatic history. It’s a humbling experience to be part of something bigger than oneself for a greater mission. From coordinating all those legal agreements impacted by Brexit on the U.K. desk to working on various crises in the State Department’s Operations Center, each tour has required me to be a quick learner and facilitator of the issues at hand.
Many of our readers will not know what a Foreign Service Officer does in the United States. Would you describe your primary duties as the Regional Director of the Office of Foreign Missions in Houston?
The majority of a Foreign Service Officers (FSO) career is expected to be spent overseas working in U.S. missions—in the embassies, consulates, and international organizations. We also have opportunities to take domestic tours in the United States. Most of these assignments are in our DC headquarters. There are few assignments outside of the DC/VA/MD area, and OFM’s regional offices are among them. OFM has six regional offices throughout the United States. The Regional Director position is headed by an FSO while the remaining staff are in the Civil Service. My civil service team is exceptional, and I could not do my job without their support.
As Regional Director, my primary duties are managing our resources, advancing national foreign policy initiatives, and being a resource for American partners and foreign missions in my eight-states region. This year marks OFM’s 40th anniversary since our creation by the Foreign Missions Act. We have grown as a bureau, but the core of what we do supports our American diplomats overseas by upholding our international agreements here in the U.S. The way foreign diplomats are treated here is the way we expect foreign governments should treat American diplomats stationed in their respective countries. We call this reciprocity. OFM operates a variety of programs for foreign missions – like DMV, tax, accreditation, etc, — that uphold our international obligations.
The regional offices are in a unique position because they are located in places where U.S. citizens may not be as familiar with the State Department and its role in international affairs. As a kid growing up in Texas, I definitely didn’t know anything about the diplomatic world. So, I think it’s important to leverage our office’s position to help the American public understand the State Department’s role among federal agencies. Thus, I see my additional role as a facilitator for local U.S. entities – from local governments, academic institutions, NGOs, etc.- that are interested in engaging with, or have questions about, the State Department.
You have served in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe, with serving in the Operations Center, in coordination with the White House Situation Room, among your most current assignments. Are you able to comment on the current status of the United States and the situation in the Ukraine, or what happened in Afghanistan?
I won’t delve into policy specifics, but I can say that the United States took actions through extensive coordination with our key allies and regional partners in both scenarios. We support the people of the Ukraine in their just cause — the defense of their country and their democracy. And as we have done since the beginning of this crisis, we will continue to support Ukraine’s efforts to de-escalate through diplomacy in order to secure a ceasefire and the withdrawal of Russia’s troops from Ukraine.
What advice would you have for a woman who is thinking of becoming a Foreign Service Officer? What obstacles might they face?
It’s not a job, but a total lifestyle change. You move to different countries every two or three years, so being nimble, resourceful, and adaptable in your personal life are important traits to have as an FSO. Generally, I have found that most female FSOs have a more difficult time finding a partner or spouse in foreign countries compared to male FSOs. FSOs at the senior level are still predominantly men. Having said that, the Department has implemented several initiatives to increase diversity in our workforce. Throughout my FS career, I have noticed greater diversity in gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation among the FSO cadre. No career is ever going to be perfect, and every demographic disposition faces obstacles. I tend to be an optimist and believe that in every underlying obstacle lies an opportunity to stand out, overcome, and succeed.
What is an area of special interest to you as you continue your work here in Houston?
I look forward to collaborating more with different American entities and partners in the region. Our office can be a resource for those interested in engaging with the State Department. I will continue to speak at events that inform the American public about the State Department, its work, and this unique career as an American diplomat. My office continues to provide diplomatic immunity training to local law enforcement to increase knowledge on the topic, along with a variety of community outreach events. Diplomacy is essentially about person-to-person exchanges, and my office is committed to outreach and being of value to the American public.
I want to thank you for taking the time to meet with me, and I also appreciate your willingness to share with our readers what a foreign service officer does in the U.S. My publisher and our team at International Focus look forward to working more with you in the future.
Heidi PP, Editor in-Chief, iF Magazine | (713)456-9513