Hugo Rodriguez, now acting director of the State Department’s Office of Mexican Affairs, worked under Bernier-Toth for the last two years.
“In terms of understanding the issues, understanding how the government as a whole can respond to the needs of Americans in trouble overseas, she knows it all,” Rodriguez said. “Beyond that , as a leader, as a supervisor, she cares so much about her people.”
A framed black-and-white photo balanced on a shelf in a corner of her office shows Bernier-Toth, 12, sitting on a rock amid the arid rubble of the Afghan countryside. The year was 1972, and Bernier-Toth was on a hike with her family.
Her parents served in the U.S. Information Agency, and she spent stints of her childhood in Iran, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, and Morocco before coming back to the U.S. in 1978 for college.
“My parents, because they were in public service, really instilled in me the sense that you should do something for other people,” Bernier-Toth said. “I would feel guilty if I didn’t, becuase that’s what they did.”
Between 1988 and 1996, she worked in the foreign service as a consular officer in Doha, Damascus and Abu Dhabi.
“My goal in life, if I had any goals, was to continue to be able to travel and to be productive while I was doing that,” she said.
Bernier-Toth came to overseas citizen services in 2001, holding a variety of positions in the office. In 2011, she was promoted to managing director.
Bernier-Toth said she struggles to balance her work life and personal life. She’s constantly connected to her BlackBerry.
But she said she does try to find respites away from work. At least twice a year, she will run races — the Army Ten-Miler in October, the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run in April. She also likes to draw and make jewelry in her Arlington home.
She’s also raised three children, Sarah Toth, 23, Charlie Toth, 19, Anna Toth, 17. Sarah is continuing the public service tradition, serving in the Peace Corps in Malawi.
Bernier-Toth said her upbringing had a direct result on where she is today.
“You make that personal connection with people, which brings it all to life for me,” she said. “That’s why I do it.”