Mercedes Fitchett ‘91, Program Manager with the U.S. Department of Defense & Former Trade Negotiator

This week, we are thrilled to highlight Mercedes Fitchett ‘91 from Bethesda, Maryland! 

Mercedes first learned about Pomona from her father who had graduated from the College with an Economics major in 1958. By the time she reached Claremont, she enjoyed classes offered by Professor Stephen Marks, Professor Michael Kuehlwein, Professor Tahir Andrabi, and Professor Eleanor Brown, among others, and ultimately decided to major in Economics. 

Outside of the classroom, Mercedes was a leader on the PPWT (Pomona-Pitzer Women’s Tennis) Team and the Pomona College campus. She not only contributed to four SCIAC (Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) Team Championships, but also helped the Sagehens qualify for the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Division III Women’s Tennis Championship four times and achieve back-to-back third-place finishes at Nationals in 1989 and 1990. During her senior year, the team entered the NCAA tournament with the No. 1 ranking in the nation for the first time and Mercedes earned All-American and All-SCIAC honors. Off the court, she served as a student council member and Internal Affairs Commissioner for the ASPC (Associated Students of Pomona College), helping the campus navigate changes in the alcohol policy and the complex issue of campus sexual assault. The latter experience opened Mercedes’ eyes to larger issues surrounding violence against women and girls in society—she has since been active with many organizations advocating for investments in women and girls. 

Upon graduating from Pomona, she pursued a Master’s in International Finance and Business at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, which marked “a nice transition to a larger stage” since most of Georgetown’s student body had prior work experience and roughly a third of these students were from overseas. With excellent professors at Georgetown, Mercedes developed a passion for international trade and had her sights set on becoming a trade policy negotiator and opening up markets around the world. And, that’s exactly what she did. She interned at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and subsequently received an opportunity to serve as a trade negotiator at the U.S. Department of Commerce. 

Since then, Mercedes has worked for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, U.S. Trade and Development Agency, USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development), and the U.S. Department of Defense. She is now based in South Ogden, Utah, where she serves as the Program Manager of the National Security Innovation Ecosystem for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent. In this Utah role, she has especially appreciated the opportunity to work with key stakeholders in the national security innovation ecosystem including academia, research labs, start-ups, traditional defense companies, and subnational economic development offices. 

Mercedes with members of the Indonesian Military who she met while conducting field research. She received the National Defense University’s Women, Peace and Security research and writing award for her paper in 2019.

Could you tell us about some of your experiences in government?

Mercedes: I feel fortunate that in my career, though it wasn’t intentional at the time, I ended up changing positions every two to three years. Part of that was being volunteered for positions that I may not have wanted, but ended up being the right thing to do. And part of that was volunteering for positions that nobody wanted to do, but they ended up being super exciting. Within the federal government, you have bureaucracies and bureaucracies don’t always want to change how they do things. But, having these opportunities to serve on these task forces really opened up my eyes to broader strategic issues and opportunities to enable transformation and culture change within bureaucracies.

I’ll share one story where I was a trade negotiator. My position involved visiting different Department of Commerce offices domestically and also internationally to understand how they were supporting the U.S. business community, including small- and medium-sized businesses. I had no idea how consequential that understanding of our commercial service operations would be for what I’m doing now today, with the National Security Innovation Ecosystem. Sometimes, you may not know how a current activity will influence or impact a future project or opportunity. 

The Department of Commerce assignments also enabled me to be quite effective on the ground during my first tour in Iraq, in 2004. I was “volun-told” for an Iraq task force. At first, I was concerned about my appointment given my very limited experience in the Middle East. However, the assignment ended up being one of the most exciting in my career. For this, I’ll give a lot of credit to my mom. I’m Peruvian-American and Spanish is my first language. Upon learning that I was going to start working on Iraq issues, my mother, who was teaching Spanish at Berlitz, introduced me to one of her colleagues who taught Arabic there. She was committed to my being exposed to and learning Arabic. Little did I know that who she introduced me to was not just an Arabic teacher, but he came from a very prestigious Iraqi family. I came home from one of my Arabic lessons, and said, “Mom, my Arabic lessons are going ‘shwey shwey,’ which translates to ‘so so’ in Arabic, but I’m learning so much about Iraqi culture and history.” 

That was not the U.S Government saying, “Go learn Arabic. Go understand Iraqi culture and history.” That was my mom. I thought it was just Arabic that my mom was exposing me to, but she knew that the instructor was Iraqi and she wanted me to learn Arabic from him. I did not make that connection until after I started my lessons. 

In Iraq’s early days, post-invasion, there was confusion on the ground amongst the Iraqis and others with regard to policies that the Americans were implementing. For me, it was so helpful to have that local Iraqi perspective and to see things differently from, “Here are your U.S. government talking points.” When I eventually went to Iraq for my first tour, that relationship with my Iraqi language instructor was absolutely pivotal to my ability to work with Iraqi leadership, the business families, and others–because of the respect that my Arabic teacher had in Iraq. 

What was one of the most meaningful experiences that you’ve had over the course of your career?

Mercedes: I’ll go back to Iraq because it brings tennis in. Tennis is a popular sport in Iraq. This experience started with my first tour when I met the Iraqi Tennis Federation’s leaders. During one of my second tours in Iraq in 2006, when I was with USAID, Iraq’s Deputy Minister of Defense loved tennis, as did his wife. He had a red clay tennis court at his home in the international zone. I would regularly go to his house and play tennis with him and his family. It was such a meaningful way to develop relationships through this common love of sports. 

It also became quite tragic when several members of the Iraqi men’s tennis team were murdered on the streets of Baghdad. I was really heartbroken for the team and the Minister’s family who were so devoted to the tennis team. I was trying to figure out something that I could do. On a summer trip back to the D.C. area, I organized a fundraising effort for the families of the Iraqi tennis team members who had been murdered. I was really touched by the generosity of friends and colleagues. One of the most moving moments was when I was participating in a ceremony with the Deputy Minister of Defense and the Iraqi men’s tennis team, and their supporters in Baghdad, to recognize the lives of those who had been murdered, and was presenting a small donation.

The biggest lesson that I learned from Iraq was that while people talk about foreign policy in grand terms, it really comes down to the people. People make such a difference, whether they’re the U.S. Ambassador, the Secretary of State, our state partnership programs with foreign militaries, or participants in the Fulbright program. People-to-people exchanges across our communities and nations are really powerful. 

Mercedes participating in a ceremony for the Iraqi Men’s Tennis Team in 2006.

As you look back, how has your experience as a Pomona-Pitzer student-athlete shaped who you are today? 

Mercedes: Any athletic experience instills in oneself this understanding of hard work and persistence. Winning is great. Losing is just part of the game. You come back and you’re stronger and that’s what competition really is. Tennis has made me such a resilient individual. 

I wish that everyone I’ve worked with would have an athletic competitive experience. This sets a common baseline to work off of—to continuously do better and not to accept the status quo. There always is a way that one could approach things to do differently. 

For me, the athletic experience was a life-defining activity because I learned so much about who I am and who I can be. I give tons of credit to Title IX and the experience that it enabled me to have as a tennis scholar at Pomona College. I’d be a very different person otherwise. I’m a much better, stronger person because I had this experience.

What are some of your best memories from your time as a Sagehen?

Mercedes: My freshman year was the most memorable. We had four walk-on freshmen (me, Karin Tsai ‘91, Maya Tussing ‘91, and Radhika Shah ‘91). We had a new coach in Lisa Beckett Berger. It was very uncertain how we were going to do. We had zero expectations. When you have zero expectations, you have no preconceptions or limits on how far one can go. 

I still remember a doubles match that Maya and I had with Occidental. We thought Occidental was going to be the strongest team in the SCIAC. This was when played six singles and three doubles. It was a split score: 4–4. Because of darkness, our doubles match was suspended until the following Saturday morning. The women’s team headed out early back to Occidental and several on the men’s team came out to support us too. Within 20 minutes, Maya and I had closed out the match, serving and volleying beautifully. When we scored that victory against Occidental, that’s when we recognized as a team that we could go really far. 

We qualified for Nationals as a team which was a really amazing experience. With us being so young and Lisa being our new coach, we weren’t mentally prepared for what to expect. Given that we were freshmen, it laid a strong foundation for my sophomore, junior, and senior years to be really strong as a team and to understand that we were a strong team. I like to think that the four freshmen set the stage for the Triple Crown winners, the amazing and historic women’s tennis team of 1992. 

In my last two years, I was very fortunate to have Brenda Peirce ‘92 as my co-captain. Brenda is an absolutely amazing person. For me, it was such an honor to serve as a captain with a teammate that I respected tremendously. During college, it was also inspiring to see Coach Lisa pursue both her professional and personal goals—as a faculty member and as a new mother. It was so cool to see a woman having a baby, doing her job, and working out on the exercise bike or jogging throughout her nine-month pregnancy. 

Another great memory that I have was waking up for practice at an insane hour—I don’t know if it was 5:00 or 6:00 AM–since two of our teammates, Debbie Boger ‘93 and Karin, were pre-med. There was a lot of intentionality with regard to them doing their labs on the same day, so that we could then restructure the tennis team practice to support their academic endeavors. 

When we were out there on the court, it was very calming to have coaches and teammates who were there with me, whether I was going to win or lose. Whatever was happening, they had my back. Also, because the team was so successful, it was exciting to see the Faculty, Administration, and fellow students recognize and support the team. It became infectious in terms of this positive energy that the team started generating.

Mercedes, Coach Lisa Beckett Berger, and alumna of the Pomona-Pitzer Women’s Tennis Team attending Brenda Peirce ’92’s induction into the Sagehen Athletic Hall of Fame in 2014.

What was one of your favorite team traditions and why?

Mercedes: In my junior and senior years, Brenda and I would co-lead some of the adhoc practices in the fall. We would get out the boombox to play songs on the radio and the whole team would jump rope together. I now have such fond memories of jump roping, at the beginning of practice, to warm up. It set such a wonderful tone. We were all jump roping together, listening to music, having fun, and catching up. 

What advice would you give to current and incoming members of the team? 

Mercedes: I always tell students how amazingly valuable the faculty is. If there’s something for which you have a passion or a particular professor that you really appreciate and admire, make an effort to spend time with them. As a student, it may feel daunting to think about spending time with the professor or taking your professor to a Coop lunch, but they find it so flattering. I loved all my Economics professors. I look back on the opportunities that my professors presented to me and how transformational they were for my academic and professional career. I will always remain grateful for them.  

Finally, I want to share the amazing support of the other faculty coaches.  Pomona is unique in having coaches that also serve as faculty members. These faculty and coaches created a camaraderie amongst all the sports—I recall fondly Curt Tong, Coach Charlie Katsiaficas, and Coach Bill Swartz—they all served as role models for us athletes.  

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