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After grad­u­ation, Hillsdale stu­dents may find them­selves in Wash­ington D.C., Chicago, or some­where in between, but one alumnus has recently made his home on the island of Fiji. Though he lives in a tropical par­adise, Joseph Cella works hard as the United States Ambas­sador to Fiji and four other Pacific island nations —  Kiribati, Nauru, Tonga, and Tuvalu.

A graduate of the class of 1991, Ambas­sador Cella said his Hillsdale years were for­mative and crucial to his success both per­sonally and pro­fes­sionally.

“The moment I set foot on Hillsdale’s campus I knew that I was meant to go there,” Cella said. “My father put great value on a person being well rounded in their edu­cation in the Western canon and Hillsdale offered that. I had great teachers who played an integral role in my devel­opment as a human being, forming my heart and mind and com­ple­menting what I thought my vocation and career tra­jectory would be.”

Cella was an English major and a history minor at Hillsdale, as well as a member of the Sigma Chi fra­ternity and the Catholic Student Council. He looks back on his college expe­rience with grat­itude.

“I made the fastest friends, the deepest friends, and the longest lasting friends there,” Cella said.

Cella’s interest in pol­itics started at age six with his family, and even­tually mate­ri­alized in his hometown.

“My dad was a Con­ser­v­ative Democrat and he would bring elected office holders to our living room,” Cella said.” I would go up to them, look them right in the eye, and shake their hand.”

When a friend encouraged him to run for Repub­lican precinct del­egate in his hometown of Richmond, Michigan, Cella decided to accept the chal­lenge. He got involved with local pol­itics in Macomb County, going to the county and state party con­ven­tions, vol­un­teering for can­di­dates, and helping friends run for office.

“My expe­rience built upon my edu­cation,” Cella said. “There were these moments of inspi­ration.”

One par­ticular inspi­ration for Cella was the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, an annual event where reli­gious leaders and national figures gather to pray for the country. For Cella, there was some­thing missing regarding religion and pol­itics. Watching Pres­ident George W. Bush’s delivery of remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast inspired him to establish the Catholic version of the event.

“In 2003, I hap­pened to be reading some of the writings of Saint John Paul II. I zeroed in on that call to the new evan­ge­lization which calls us to spread the Gospel in ways that are new in method and expression,” Cella said.“I felt that call. What a beau­tiful moment to hoist the flag for the Catholic Church but have it open to others too. We have wel­comed others of all faiths and it’s been won­derful.”

Cella’s involvement with the Trump Cam­paign was a turning point in his political career. After serving as the Catholic liaison to the cam­paign and man­aging the Catholic advisory group,  he was offered the ambas­sadorial position. The name of the con­sulting company he founded, Pon­tifex, means bridge-builder in Latin. 

“That is what a diplomat does and who a diplomat is in a unique way: a bridge builder from the United States to the coun­tries to which we’re accredited,” said Cella.

As an ambas­sador, Cella works to execute the United States’ foreign policy in the five island nations he’s accredited to. A typical day at the embassy in Suva, Fiji is fast-paced and busy. It begins by looking at the schedule, reading memos for upcoming events, meeting with col­leagues, and meeting with inter­locutors in person or over the phone. Family and faith are also daily pri­or­ities for Cella. 

“We spend family time in the morning. I try to start off every day with mass at 7 a.m. with the Columban fathers that are here. It’s been very important to me. Spending time with the family in the evening is also important.”

Very soon after assuming his position, Cella had to face the chal­lenge of the global pan­demic.

“We arrived here on December 16 of last year. Soon there­after things started to spread. I reached out to all the heads of state about the pan­demic. Then I went to D.C. for a Chiefs of Mission con­ference in March. Every­thing really came to a halt after we evac­uated 2,000 American cit­izens through our con­sular office,” Cella said.

Despite the dif­fi­culty, Fiji was the first embassy in the world to bring people back to work before Phase 3.

“It was really a pio­neering moment for the diplo­matic corps. We have over 184 embassies and we were the first to get a waiver approved by the State Department to return staff and operate under normal cir­cum­stances while still on phase two,” said Cella.

Cella and the embassy staff spear­headed a sub­stantial COVID-19 response effort to help the island nations. So far they have sup­plied $24.2 million to the Pacific islands.

While the pan­demic is affecting the whole world, Fiji and the other Pacific nations have their own unique chal­lenges. Cella explained how the embassy’s role is diverse and important.

“Core to the work is building and for­ti­fying demo­c­ratic prin­ciples within these coun­tries, stim­u­lating trade, security, and sta­bility in many ways. They’re uniquely impacted by changing weather pat­terns here. We help them deal with climate issues and increase their resilience for the summer cyclone season. Human­i­tarian dis­aster relief is important. We’ve had two tropical cyclones hit since I’ve arrived. We had to engage with that and provide relief to the coun­tries impacted.”

While ambas­sadorial work is intense and high stakes, there are some perks that come with the position. Access to Pacific island food is one of them. Sea grapes have become a favorite of the Ambas­sador.

“They’re aquatic plants that look like a bunch of green grapes and there’s a crunch and a pop to them. They’re a little salty. You can cook them or make a salad out of them. There’s also a dressing for them that’s made out of salt immersed in coconut milk.”

Another favorite of Cella’s is any dish cooked in a lovo, which Cella said is like an under­ground bar­becue.

“You lay meat or fish wrapped in palm leaves on wooden racks and cover it in more palm leaves and stones,” Cella said. “It is the most delightful tasting food. It’s like an under­ground bar­becue. Any­thing lovo is a winner.”

Approaching the one year anniversary of taking his post in Fiji, Cella has dealt with many chal­lenges and expe­ri­enced many joys. From the beginning, he said he has aimed to stick to his prin­ciples of treating all people with dignity, worth, and respect, in all things legal, moral, and ethical. Despite the trials of the job, Cella said he’s grateful for the oppor­tunity to rep­resent the United States and give of his talents in a unique way.

“It’s absolutely exhil­a­rating work. It’s an honor, blessing, and joy to serve.”