When Fresno, CA native Kristina Kvien ’87 arrived at Occidental College, Cold War tensions were at an all-time high. A North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military simulation in November 1983, known as Able Archer, convinced the Soviet Union of an imminent attack and intensified fear of nuclear war around the globe. The Soviet Empire collapsed in 1991, just as Kvien was preparing for a career in the U.S. Foreign Service. More than 30 years later, on Feb. 23., Russia invaded Ukraine, a former member of the Soviet Union. A long-time diplomat, Kvien currently serves as the Charge d’Affaires for the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, where she works towards de-escalating this crisis.
Kvien said her politics major, centered on Soviet studies, informed her understanding of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“President Putin is basically a Soviet leader without the Communist ideology,” Kvien said via email. “The authoritarian, repressive, aggressive aspects are the same.”
At Occidental, Kvien worked closely with politics professor Larry Caldwell, who she said inspired her with his passion and his thought-provoking teaching style.
Thinking back to when he first taught her, Caldwell said Kvien had a kind of character that radiated excellence.
“She was a very good student, but not the way many student leaders are,” Caldwell said. “She was not excessively verbal and rarely volunteered in class but she was always prepared if we called on her.”
While Kvien had a quiet demeanor in class, Caldwell said her thoughts were of a high caliber and she was an excellent writer.
In his class, Caldwell said he prepared students for government careers by conducting simulations and challenging them to write concise opinion-based papers.
“I tried to reproduce for my students the kind of environment they would have when they were in the government,” Caldwell said. “I also emphasized writing very short papers which they hated but that was training for the government too.”
As a retired foreign affairs professional, Caldwell said Kvien already possessed the skills the State Department looks for in candidates when she was at Occidental, and it came as no surprise when he learned about Kvien’s position there.
“She had the analytical skills when she came to Oxy,” Caldwell said. “All she had to do was hone them.”
In 2020, Kvien’s daughter Hana White ‘20 became a fourth-generation graduate of the college.
Kvien credits her time at Occidental with providing the foundation in writing and critical thinking that launched her prestigious career.
“These skills have served me well for nearly 30 years and are key to my effectiveness as a Foreign Services Officer,” Kvien said via email.
Outside of the classroom, Kvien served as a resident advisor (RA) in E. Norris Hall, was a member of the Delta Omicron Tau sorority and played on the women’s water polo team.
To this day, Kvien said she stays in touch with her friends from Occidental including Harriet Schwartzman ‘87 who she met while living in Bell-Young Hall as a first-year student.
“She was my best friend in college,” Schwartzman said. “We share so many memories together I don’t even know where to start.”
Even while at Occidental, Schwartzman said she knew Kvien would make a terrific leader one day.
“As a student, she was very well-rounded and stayed active around campus,” Schwartzman said. “I am not surprised she has risen to this position.”
After graduating, Kvien worked in the marketing department at The L.A. Times where she bumped into former classmate Lauren Lipton ‘87, who had just started as a reporter. Lipton said Kvien made her feel welcomed right away and she quickly learned what an outgoing person Kvien was.
“I didn’t have enough experience with her in school to realize how special of a person she is,” Lipton said.
Lipton said that when Kvien decided to leave her marketing career and join the Foreign Service, their recruiting office called to interview her as a reference. At the time, Lipton said, she was sad to see Kvien embark on a new career path but happy she had the chance to speak about her kind personality. The two have seen each other intermittently throughout the years and Lipton said she is glad that Kvien is in her current role.
“I definitely feel good knowing that she’s representing our country,” Lipton said. “She really is the right person.”
In a Feb. 24 email supporting Occidental community members from Eastern Europe, Dean Rob Flot said his thoughts are with Kvien, who at the time had evacuated to Poland along with other embassy employees.
Kvien said she remains determined to fulfill her role as the country’s top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine as Russian forces slowly leave the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and surrounding areas.
“Ukraine, like other countries before it, wants to escape the Russian orbit and is willing to fight to succeed,” Kvien said via email.