Jullion Cooper inducted into Hall of Fame
A Sussex County native who has traveled the world in the foreign service was recently recognized by his alma mater, Sussex Central High School.
Jullion Cooper lives in Washington, D.C., but grew up in Millsboro, fourth in a line of five siblings. His father spent a long career at the Delaware Hospital for the Chronically Ill and his mother is two years shy of retiring from Perdue. He attended East Millsboro Elementary School and Sussex Central middle and high schools.
The 35-year-old credits his teachers with lessons that weren’t necessarily in the curriculum. For example, in the fifth grade Cooper came to the realization that he was different from the other kids in his class. His skin was darker, and he wanted to know why he was the only one, so he asked his teacher.
“She had a really frank conversation with me. She said, ‘You know, I don’t know why you’re the only person of color, but we love you and we care about you and you belong here.’ That stuck with me,” Cooper said.
Cooper was a smart kid, and it didn’t go unnoticed. He was also the class clown.
“I was a very rambunctious preteen, very sassy,” he said. “It was extremely important to me to get in the last word.”
A sixth grade teacher gave him a piece of advice: No one will be able to see your intelligence past your attitude if you don’t knock it off.
“She said it in a way that clicked with me for whatever reason, and I am particularly grateful for that,” Cooper said. “A lot of teachers who are white are intimidated by students of color, and are afraid to intervene, to chastise or give words of encouragement. A lot of them equate behavior to culture and I’m so glad she didn’t do that.”
In high school there was another watershed moment: coming out.
“I really needed to assert my identity and reality,” he said.
Being open about his sexuality clashed with his upbringing, but he found comfort in the high school drama club. His experiences in theater at Sussex Central stuck with him.
“Being able to get on stage and have that outlet was extremely helpful,” Cooper said. “And it’s been helpful to be able to roleplay in life sometimes, when you’re doing things you don’t necessarily want to do – I’m able to step into those roles and be empathetic.”
After graduating in 2001, Cooper went on to the University of Delaware on scholarship – the first in his family to attend college. He had intentions of majoring in forensic science and becoming a doctor, but a first semester biology course changed his mind.
“I didn’t resonate with me. It was too abstract in a way I wasn’t familiar with,” he said.
What he did find interesting was his criminal justice class and the philosophy of law. He went on to get his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and double-minored in philosophy and Spanish, after studying abroad in Spain during his junior year.
“It changed my life,” he said. “I loved traveling, I loved the challenge of been thrown into a completely different society, being forced to reckon with a different narrative than that in the U.S.”
Instead of going to law school, he put his plans on hold and returned to Spain to teach English for three years. Then, anxious for a new challenge, he moved to Boston, where he began a job helping HIV-positive prisoners transition back into society.
“I was working with the most marginalized of the marginalized. The work my dad did, that gave me the frame of mind of being an advocate for the underdog,” Cooper said.
His ambition struck again a few years later, and he applied for the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship program, which allowed him to attend graduate school at Johns Hopkins. He traveled to study in Bologna, Italy for the degree and become a part of the foreign service in 2013.
Cooper’s first assignment was as a consulate officer in China, reviewing visa applications and assisting U.S. citizens abroad. Then he returned to Washington D.C., where he worked with the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, developing information on substance abuse treatment and prevention.
“I helped to redirect the conversation around the reality that addiction is a chronic brain disease,” Cooper said. “It’s not something that they’re doing out of spite or because they’re bored or whatever. Their brains are wired in a way that doesn’t allow them to think clearly. It’s not solely a criminal justice problem; it’s a public health problem.”
At his current assignment, Cooper is using Department of State intelligence to inform U.S. foreign policy. He assesses situations like the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and determines their level of importance to the department.
He recently received his next assignment. In July, he’ll be traveling to Port au Prince, Haiti, to assess law enforcement issues.
On November 16, Sussex Central High School inducted Cooper into its Hall of Fame, in front of his parents, fiancé Alan, friends old and new and numerous teachers.
“I’ve never been one to shy away from the spotlight, but even I was caught by surprise at the overwhelming amount of support, encouragement and love I received,” he said. “I couldn’t have asked for a more special moment.”
Cooper and Alan will be married in May. They plan to adopt a child.