When Mark Gul '02 was an Upper School student at Norfolk Academy, he inspired classmates and faculty with his fortitude and optimism in response to a diagnosis of Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Throughout his battle with cancer, he missed just two days of school, and he continued to participate in soccer practices. When news came in his senior year that the cancer was in remission, the entire school celebrated, and Gul, as captain of the soccer team, helped lead the team to a 22-2 record and the state finals.
On Tuesday, he inspired the school yet again, as he spoke to Middle School students, and more briefly to Upper School students, from Belgrade, Serbia, via Zoom, about his work as a foreign service officer for the State Department. He was introduced by Batten Leadership Program Director Sean Wetmore '86, who was Gul's soccer coach. Jack Gibson '08, Assistant Director of the Batten Leadership Program, served as moderator.
Gul's talk focused on the war in Ukraine, which hits home personally: His family moved to Virginia Beach from Lviv, Ukraine in 1992, and he attended public schools before enrolling at Norfolk Academy as an 8th grader. Lviv, in western Ukraine, is considered a cultural center of the country, but it is now inundated by internal refugees, who have fled their homes from fighting in the East.
Gul credited Norfolk Academy, which he noted he was able to attend due to financial aid, with instilling “a sense of integrity," a desire to perform public service, and “curiosity about the wider community." He attended Georgetown University, and then embarked on a career in foreign service that has had him stationed at embassies and consulates in Moscow, Tel Aviv, and Portugal, before his current posting in Belgrade. He speaks many languages, including Russian, Serbian, Hebrew, and Portuguese.
Foreign service officers typically spend a majority of their career abroad, often moving between countries, which makes it a profession full of adventure, he noted, but also one that requires separation from family and friends at home. Gul is married with two young children, but he rarely gets to return to the United States. Gul's parents, Natalia and Ostap Gul, were in the audience at Norfolk Academy, and they said that they are planning to go to Serbia on Sunday for an extended visit.
Gul said that the work of a foreign service officer is anything but routine; he spends a great deal of time meeting with experts, writing reports, and providing advice for meetings of top level officials. For example, the U.S. ambassador to Serbia is meeting with the Serbian president, Aleksander Vucic, this week, and Gul has helped prepare the ambassador for that event.
Gul noted that Russia's invasion of Ukraine has become the overwhelming focus for the world, and that includes diplomats. Gul described the war as Putin's attempt to rebuild an empire by subjugating the Ukrainian people, out of fear of a “prosperous and democratic neighbor." He described what is happening now as the “latest phase" of a war that began in 2014, when Russia moved into Crimea in an attempt, which was not thwarted by the world community, to annex it.
While the United States is leading efforts to keep NATO and the European Union united in a push to both punish Russia for the invasion and to support Ukraine in fighting back, Serbia has warm relations with Russia. While Serbia has joined public statements to condemn Russia, including a vote at the United Nations, Serbia has not supported sanctions against Russia, and the country has had several pro-Russian rallies. “On a personal level, that has been difficult" to see, Gul said.
Gibson asked Gul for advice about how help the Ukrainians. Gul replied that the number one thing is “not to be indifferent to the war. Pay attention." He reminded Middle School students that kids their age in Ukraine went from going to school and playing soccer one day to “living through hell" nearly overnight. He said many charities are also raising money to support Ukrainian refugees, now numbering in the millions.
“We don't want to live in a world where lawlessness and brute force prevail," he said. “Spread the word and the truth about the war with your family and friends."