Rohan Thompson had been invited for lunch at the Uzbekistan embassy in Washington, D.C.
Thompson, a senior double majoring in political science and economics at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, was in Washington for the World Affairs Councils of America conference, a three-day international meeting held Nov. 16-18. He was one of 25 students nationwide selected to attend the global conference, with the accompanying scholarship covering his expenses.
Shaking hands and making polite conversation in the embassy of Uzbekistan, a country just north of Afghanistan and Iran, Thompson noticed a man standing behind him.
“I thought, ‘Oh, that’s probably just one of the many, many workers here,’ so when I shook his hand, I said something like, ‘Hey, how ya doin’?’”
Immediately after the “Hey” and the handshake, Thompson was nudged by Marieta Velikova, a board of directors member for the Tennessee World Affairs Council, which took a group to the conference.
“She said, ‘Do you know who that is?’ I said, ‘I have no idea,’” Thompson recalled.
“Who” was Javlon Abdujalilovich Vakhabov, the Uzbekistan ambassador to the United States, who has conversations with U.S. President Joe Biden and Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
“I told her, ‘I would’ve appreciated you telling me that before,’” Thompson said.
His faux pax touched off no international incident, and the rest of the conference went very well, said Thompson, who graduated from Ravenwood High School in Brentwood, Tennessee, in 2019.
With the theme of “Navigating a Fractured World,” the conference included speeches by heavy hitters like Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Philippe Lavigne, a French general and NATO’s supreme allied commander in charge of improving the military effectiveness of the alliance.
Thompson was a perfect fit for the conference, said Dr. Saeid Golkar, a UC Foundation assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Service at UTC. Golkar told Thompson about the conference and recommended that he apply for the all-expenses-paid trip.
“Rohan is among the most outstanding students I have had here, always going above and beyond in assignments, serving as a leader in classroom discussion, and bringing passion, nuance and perception of complicated issues in my courses and his reporting,” Golkar said.
“In addition, he is a fantastic writer on issues concerning international relations, which is a difficult task for many of my students. Over the years, I have seen him grow into a young scholar, investigating critical yet under-explored issues.”
During his time as a UTC undergraduate, Thompson has dipped his toe into political waters several times.
He served as attorney general in the Tennessee Intercollegiate State Legislature (TISL) from September 2020 through November 2021. As a UTC Student Government Association member, he served as secretary during his sophomore year and as parliamentarian as a junior. He said he had to drop his participation in the SGA after his course load grew too heavy.
Thompson said he returned from the World Affairs Councils of America conference with an expanded understanding of world politics and policymaking that will help him in his future career.
“There was a lot of information to pick up,” he explained. “I learned a lot about Russian foreign policy with other countries because that is obviously a hot topic right now. I learned about China and their economic policies. We had some representatives coming from NATO and European parliaments as well as some policymaking think tanks.”
Talking and listening to political experts from around the world gave him “a more well-rounded view,” he said.
“It was reassuring to me that, despite the cultural differences that people have with one another, at the end of the day we’re all still people, and we all have the same desires.
“People want security for themselves, for their family. They want to make sure that their rights, their existence, is not threatened, at least not as an everyday occurrence. People ultimately want success for themselves.”
Before spending three days in Washington, Thompson had plans to pursue a master’s degree. He now might alter that agenda.
“When I was in D.C., the first people we talked to were from the CIA,” he recalled. “I had thought about working with them because they’re an international relations organization. They’re not law enforcement, but they do specialize in intelligence gathering, which I thought was really interesting.
“But I was on and off about them because they could be pretty restrictive in what they allow and don’t allow. Even the application process to get security clearance takes a year, maybe more than that.”
As CIA representatives talked more about the different career options inside the organization, Thompson said, his interest grew.
“They talked about the different career opportunities there,” he said. “I could stay in the States; I could go to a foreign country and spend a couple of months, maybe a couple years. There’s a lot of options.
“So that’s my first choice right now.”