Exchange Matters / April 26, 2019

A Tribute to John Bersia

John Bersia, who stepped down from the Global Ties U.S. Board of Directors in January 2019, passed away in late March. Below are a series of tributes to John’s life, work, and citizen diplomacy impact.

John C. Bersia (1956-2019): Former Global Ties U.S. Board Member and Board Chair, World Affairs Council of Central Florida.


On the afternoon of Monday, March 25, I reluctantly and with a crushing weight on my heart clicked “send.” As Director of the World Affairs Council of Central Florida (WACCFL), it was my role to announce that our Board Chair, John Bersia, had died a few days earlier of metastatic cancer. How, I thought to myself, could I possibly pay tribute to this great man’s life with a few boiled down paragraphs? He was so much to so many: friend, family, mentor, writer, teacher, chef, joker, thinker, doer, and more. Yes, his resume was insanely impressive, but I believe he’ll be remembered more for the qualities that define who he was as a human being.

John’s involvement with WACCFL spanned nearly 20 years, and he recently served on the Board of Directors at Global Ties U.S. In addition to his long involvement with WACCFL, John’s life was filled with service in many other capacities. He’d been with the University of Central Florida since 2001 as a Professor and as Director of the Global Perspectives Office; he was also Executive Producer and host of a weekly WUCF TV show, and recently helped establish the Center for the Study of Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery. Prior to that, he was a founding member of the Orlando Area Committee on Foreign Relations, taught at Rollins College, and worked at the Orlando Sentinel for more than 15 years, where he won a Pulitzer prize in 2000. John earned three master’s degrees from Georgetown University, American University, and the London School of Economics.

Clearly, John was a brilliant man. However, when brilliance is packaged in a human being along with humility, kindness, generosity, and a wicked sense of humor, then you really have someone special. John’s successful career gave him the platform to share his exemplary character with an unusually large number of people: thousands of international exchange professionals, generations of university students, countless readers of his news columns over decades, professional colleagues throughout his life, and even world leaders.

What stood out most to me was his impact as a mentor to young professionals over the years. For nearly 15 years, John served as my mentor, friend, and boss (twice). I would not be the person I am today without the opportunities he provided. In 2005, he hired me at UCF’s Global Perspectives Office. Ten years later, he hired me as Director of WACCFL. I am one of countless young professionals whose careers he helped shape and nurture with sage advice—and peach cobbler. Perhaps his most enduring legacy will be the multiple generations of friends and protégés in Central Florida and around the world who will carry the light of his torch and continue the work that he cared so deeply about.

By Sarah Ridley-Gal, Executive Director, World Affairs Council of Central Florida


“I worked so closely with John over so many years to advance global engagement in every aspect of life in Central Florida that I am truly at a loss right now. But I promised John, during his last hours on earth, to support and continue his good work…and that I will do.”
—Larry Chastang, WACCFL Board Chair Emeritus, Global Ties U.S. Advisory Council Co-Chair

“Though John met many world leaders, I knew through his many recollections, who his hero and mentor was: his beloved father, whose profound teachings and stoic discipline came from his roots and life as a proud farmer in France. John led a life of authenticity, adventure, truth-seeking and telling, imagination, curiosity, and commitment to helping others be their best selves. He rightfully earned the devotion and admiration of the multitude of lives he touched.”
—Patricia Ambinder, WACCFL Board Vice-Chair/Treasurer

“John was the epitome of civility. Thanks to John’s commitment to inform and expose the broader Central Florida community to international and domestic thought leaders, this community is well-informed and able to make wise decisions on globally focused and culturally sensitive issues.”
—Harriet L. Elam-Thomas, WACCFL Advisory Council Member, former U.S. Ambassador to Senegal, and Director of UCF’s Diplomacy Program