Most of us can only imagine meeting the political figures we see on TV. We might get lucky and hear them speak somewhere, but very few of us will actually meet them. But a small minority gets to rub shoulders with big-time foreign dignitaries just weeks after earning a degree. Such was the case for Jenae Jenison, a December 2011 graduate who met Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping during his February visit to Iowa.
The process began while Jenison was still a student. Jeff Boeyink ’85, chief of staff for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, spoke at a political science luncheon on Central’s campus in the spring of 2011. After introducing herself and establishing a relationship, Jenison landed a communications internship with the governor’s office for the following semester, where she must have made a good impression.
In December, as her internship was winding down, Jenison was offered a full-time position as public liaison. She admits her surprise: “I didn’t go into work that day expecting to get a full-time job offer.”
Even today, the shock hasn’t worn off. “It still gets me when I drive up to the Capitol in the morning—with the sun shining off the rotunda—that this is where I work,” she says. “My desk is just outside the formal offices, so every day I get to take-in the beauty of the intricate details in the marble and woodworking that our state capitol holds.”
While her normal duties include everything from handling constituent services to working with the Iowa Commission of Volunteerism, she spent three weeks in the lead-up to Xi’s visit helping plan the events. Although she had her hand in most of the planning, she served as point-of-contact for the welcome and departure ceremonies at the Iowa Air National Guard base in Des Moines.
“I knew every nut and bolt detail,” Jenison says, and there were a lot of them. From making sure the events met security protocols to making sure the red carpet—yes, they really had one—was in place, there was a lot to be done. And everything came with the extra challenge of ensuring the ceremonies met the requirements of Chinese traditions.
The governor’s office coordinated with the Chinese Consulate in Chicago, groups from Beijing and United States federal delegates to ensure they were meeting standards. In Chinese culture, a formal ceremony to welcome a prominent dignitary is the norm. “We wanted the event to be professional and elegant,” Jenison says, so the governor and lieutenant governor were on site, along with other prominent members of state government. They were even sure to have a small child on scene to present the vice president with flowers as he disembarked from his Boeing 747. It’s another Chinese custom.
Attention to detail was important, because the governor’s office hoped to make the visit as beneficial as possible for both Iowa and China. With a population of more than a billion people, China’s agricultural needs present an obvious opportunity for Iowa. The $4.3 billion soybean deal signed during the Chinese delegates’ visit is testament to the value of the relationship. “Every fourth row of soybeans in Iowa fields will be exported to China,” Jenison says. “That’s huge for our state.”
Outside of the two ceremonies she oversaw, Jenison helped with countless other aspects of Xi’s visit, not least of which was the dinner at the capitol building. The 650-person guest list again featured members of Iowa’s government, as well as prominent business leaders.
After the hard work of planning and executing the visit, Jenison had the wonderful payoff of being a member of the seeing-off party, where she was able to shake Xi’s hand and thank him for his visit. “Shaking his hand was the most memorable part of the trip,” she says. “He just seemed so genuine and approachable that it was easy to forget that one day he’ll be president to over a billion people.”
In keeping with Chinese expectation, the party on the tarmac waved farewell to the plane as it departed, continuing until it was out of sight. “When it was over, we all just said ‘It couldn’t have gone any better. It was just perfect.’”