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.”