Chris Hensman: the Public Servant par Excellence
By Jonathan Greenberg '19
Chris Hensman ‘99, a former member of the U.S. Foreign Service and a current officer in the Rebuild Texas Fund, which focuses on revitalizing Texas communities devastated by Hurricane Harvey, has always been passionate about helping others.
Hensman, the 2018 Fox Family Speaker, attended Wheeler for 13 years. A “proud purple”, he accumulated many memories along the way. Hensman still remembered his first-grade teacher Sue Orenstein’s giant panda bear in the corner of the classroom, and his time with "Mr. (Ted) Merlin, one of his kindergarten teachers, whom Hensman came to see a few years ago before Merlin's retirement. Hensman says he has been amazed by how long teachers stay at Wheeler, adding “it really shows Wheeler’s unique community.”
Hensman also remembered fondly the Holiday Festival, the pre-winter break all-school gathering that showcases performances from all the grades. As a child, he loved to be part of this larger community, getting off campus and packing into a large nearby church with his friends; especially the joyful perspective of an upcoming holiday.
In high school, it is hard to find something in which Hensman did not participate. He was in Mock Trial. He was on the Debate team. He was an actor in theater. He was in the 18 Wheelers when it was known simply as the “Wheeler Chorale.” And, if the latter activities were not enough, Hensman also played sports and helped digitize a version of the Wheeler yearbook and create Wheeler’s first website.
Hensman believes that Wheeler Academic Decathlon (AcDec) helped lay the foundation for his career in the US Foreign Service. AcDec challenged him to refine his analytical skills and exposed him to a plethora of subjects outside the classroom. Hensman noted that that AcDec required him to quickly formulate ideas and develop solutions well buttressed with evidence. Coupled with Wheeler’s holistic approach to learning--Hensman, who says he gets bored very easily, enjoyed Wheeler’s style of education where you get to learn about a large breadth of issues--the Ac Dec experience instilled confidence and focus in Hensman.
After High School, Hensman attended Connecticut College, which he described as “very complimentary to Wheeler”. Both schools were concentrated on the liberal arts, which made him see problems from a variety of perspectives: “World issues are multi-dimensional, so seeing things from different perspectives is very important.”
After graduating from Connecticut College, Hensman applied directly to the Foreign Service. The diplomatic corps presented Hensman with the opportunity to help others, travel, and improve international relations between the U.S. and other countries. After being accepted and receiving his security clearance, Hensman travelled to Afghanistan and later Pakistan, where he quickly made a name for himself as a promising young diplomat.
Despite his long list of accomplishments, Hensman is most proud of the behind-the-scenes projects that have had large impacts on a given population. For instance, during Hensman’s time in Pakistan, when he worked in the visa section he helped improve visa systems to speed up processing. This improved employee morale, customer service, and saved millions of dollars for the U.S. State Department.
While living in Houston with his family in 2017, Hensman witnessed Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast. Seeing the destroyed landscape and devastated communities and the huge opportunities for him to make a difference, Hensman decided to “take a leap of faith” and stay in Houston, which was also easier on his growing family. He resigned from the Foreign Service and began volunteering. Two weeks later, Hensman had a job with the Rebuild Texas Fund at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. Hensman is passionate about his work to alleviate the continued suffering from Hurricane Harvey in his community.
When asked what advice he would give to students at Wheeler, Hensman said: “Find work that you find challenging and never take a job only because you think it will lead you to another, better one.” According to Hensman, “if you do a job that you are passionate about, success will follow. That is one piece of advice I have always tried to take to heart.”