After receiving a U.S. Department of State internship, senior Steve Turnier spent the summer in Cameroon learning about the nation’s people and its politics
By Richard A. Webster
“There are riots in the streets! People are protesting! Masses of young people are congregating to protest!”
So reads an excerpt from the June 30th entry to senior Steve Turnier’s blog during his 10-week stay in Cameroon as part of a prestigious internship through the U.S. Department of State.
Cameroon is a developing country in central Africa marked by political discord, civil unrest, a failing economy and soaring crime rates.
On the day Turnier posted his blog entry, President Paul Biya ousted several members of his cabinet including Prime Minister Ephraim Inoni. Outraged students opposed the action and Biya’s alleged refusal to allow “anyone under the age of 50 the opportunity to serve in high government positions regardless of how qualified they are,” Turnier wrote. “I saw organized marches and protests everywhere I drove today.”
Coming midway through his internship, Turnier says the events he witnessed that day “perfectly encapsulated” his experience - the wild excitement and outpouring of emotions, charges of corruption and student unrest - all set in the backdrop of the Sub-Saharan African country.
Turnier marveled at it all, that a poor kid from Stamford, Connecticut, could somehow find himself in Cameroon working for the U.S. Department of State. But those who know Turnier say nothing that happens to him is by chance. Turnier works harder than anybody and seizes every opportunity presented to him, says Dr. Amy Diepenbrock, Barry’s director of the c er services.
And his efforts paid off. Out of 2,000 applicants, the U.S. Department of State awarded Turnier, a finance major, one of eight prestigious student internships. And out of the eight, he was the only applicant selected for a scholarship that fully funded his trip.
From June 2 to August 16, Turnier worked in the U.S. embassy in the capital city of Yaounde where he prepared reports on human rights and the university system. He also helped to arrange trips to the U.S. for Cameroon dignitaries and provided outreach for businesses looking to establish ties with U.S. investors and companies.
Turnier’s involvement with the International Internship Program was made possible when Hilarion “Lari” Martinez, a senior foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State and a diplomat in residence at Florida International University, came to Barry University last year to talk to students about opportunities with the State Department including the overseas internship program.
Upon meeting Turnier, Martinez immediately realized he was an ideal candidate. He spoke the official language of Cameroon, French, in addition to four other languages, and was somewhat familiar with the culture since his father was born and raised in Cameroon.
But it was more than that, Martinez said.
“Our goal is to make American foreign service and diplomacy reflect more what I consider to be the face of our nation,” Martinez says. “The days when American diplomats were male, pale and from Yale are long gone. I’d be very happy if our future diplomats would be people like Steve Turnier because he represents modern day America.”
Despite his credentials and his father’s background, Turnier admits he wasn’t fully prepared for Cameroon. He expected to walk off the plane into a primitive world of never-ending grasslands populated by elephants, lions and wildebeest.
“When I got off the plane I was amazed, because everyone getting off with me was as well dressed if not better than anyone in America,” he says. “They wore Versace suits and Italian shoes. Everyone was prim and proper and spoke better English than most people here. It’s a well-developed country and it set me back a little. The world became a smaller place after that.”
Despite its outward appearance as a modern society, Cameroon is crippled by pervasive corruption and that, more so than anything else, is what is holding it back, Turnier says.
Cameroon, roughly the size of California, is blessed with an abundance of natural resources in the agriculture, mining, forestry and oil and gas sectors. But internal problems have crippled the economy.
In 2000, the Cameroonian government was named the most corrupt in the world by Transparency International, a German Anti-Corruption NGO (non-governmental organization).
According to Turnier, he had a bit of first-hand experience with this notorious corruption and the instability it breeds. On June 30 President Paul Biya reshuffled his cabinet, tossing out long-serving officials, including then-Prime Minister Ephraim Inoni.
At the time people speculated that Biyaho, who has been in power for 27 years, took the actions to cover up his own corruption. It was a harsh reminder of how far Cameron has to go.
When Turnier heard the news, he thought of one of his fellow classmates he met briefly just a few weeks earlier. On the day he was leaving for Cameroon he went to the Cor Jesu Chapel on Barry’s Miami Shores campus to be blessed. When he emerged he was greeted by Shirley Inoni, a Barry student and the daughter of Prime Minister Inoni.
She wished him well and told Turnier she would phone ahead to her father to let him know he was coming so they could arrange a meeting.
“The prime minister was a good guy and making changes and working with the U.S. embassy,” Turnier said. “But the people at the embassy knew it was coming. For the past two years a cabinet reshuffle had been on everyone’s tongue. And then one morning the president said he was having a shuffle and exiled everyone out of the government.”
Turnier also obtained insight into the Cameroonian “culture of corruption” while interviewing university students for a State Department paper he co-authored.
The frustrated students told him corruption is rampant in the universities where unqualified administrators are appointed to pay off political debts. The students also claimed that they have to pay their teachers to see class notes or instructional material.
And, even if they do graduate, the diploma means little in a country where jobs are handed out based on family connections and political affiliations.
“You could see how frustrated they are,” Turnier said. “But, in this country, I think there are a lot of students who take their education for granted. The students in Cameroon would do anything for the opportunities we have here.”
Turnier’s reaction to the plight of the Cameroonian students doesn’t surprise Diepenbrock.
“He appreciates what he has because of what he hasn’t had,” she said. “He’s the oldest of four boys with a single mother whom he feels compelled to help.”
Diepenbrock knew Turnier was different the first time she met him. He had just left the gym when he noticed Career Services was having an information session. Still in his workout clothes he popped his head in and, after a minute or so, popped back out. He returned 10 minutes later.
“He came back in a full suit without anyone having to say anything to him, whereas some students go to career fairs in shorts and don’t think anything about it. Steve gets it, the networking and relationship building.”
As for his own future, Turnier said his trip to Cameroon has him thinking about a career in forensic accounting. In his opinion, many of the problems experienced by developing countries are the result of their inability to keep track of their money, which breeds corruption. “This would be a chance for me to give back and help these people,” he said. “That’s really where my focus is now. This trip really affected my view of the world and what I want to do to change it.”