By Elise Labott
(CNN) - Anne Smedinghoff’s idea of fun wasn’t what most people would consider a good time. In January 2012 while in Venezuela as a Foreign Service officer, she wrote to her friends about a holiday to the Delta del Orinoco, one of the world’s great river deltas.
“Two Belgians, four Germans, a Swiss-Venezuela, a Norwegian and I trekked into the jungle on Saturday,” Smedinghoff wrote. “Sounds like the start of a bad joke, but in fact it's how I spent my Martin Luther King Day weekend. We lived in huts built over the river on stilts, fished for and ate piranhas, paddled around the delta in canoes made from tree trunks, cut down a palm tree and ate the fresh heart-of-palm from the inside, visited an indigenous family who kept a crocodile on a leash as a pet, saw anacondas and macaws and monkeys, used machetes to cut our way through the jungle, ate termites that tasted like menthol, and watched the sunset while drinking rum and Tang in a boat.”
Overcome with grief at her death in a suicide bombing Saturday while delivering books to an Afghan school, her family and friends are celebrating the life of what they describe as a fearless and positive woman with an infectious smile who was devoted to helping others. And they are trying to find solace in the fact that she died doing what she loved.
“She was a woman who loved life, who was adventuresome, really wanted to make a difference in the world,” says her father, Thomas Smedinghoff. “She was someone that really embraced life to the fullest.”
Growing up in River Forest, an upscale Chicago suburb, she attended the selective Fenwick High School. Best friend Julie Whiting, who lived three blocks away, remembers a quiet, capable girl for whom school came easy and who could be counted on to wait in line at midnight for the latest “Harry Potter” release. Throughout college, the two remained close and kept in daily touch over Skype and IChat while Smedinghoff worked abroad.
“She was my other half, the only person I could be quiet and be myself with,” Whiting says of her friend. “I always felt like I knew what was going on in her life, even though we were across the globe from each other. We were always on the exact same page.”
Even at a young age, Smedinghoff displayed a love of global affairs, reading The New York Times international section and joining her high school’s international and political clubs. She went on to earn a degree in international relations at John Hopkins University in Baltimore. Friends say she came into her own at college, organizing community service events and luring high-profile speakers from around the world for the university’s annual Foreign Affairs Symposium, including Paul Rusesabagina, the inspiration for the movie “Hotel Rwanda.”
In college she bonded with a tight-knit group of 11 sorority sisters at Kappa Alpha Theta. The youngest of the group, Smedinghoff stood out for her smarts and quiet ambition. After graduation, the women would keep in touch through a private Facebook page, and until her death they relished their friend’s detailed postings about her latest adventure.
Always looking for a project to help others, Smedinghoff spent her senior year of college building homes for Habitat for Humanity. The summer after college she joined a cross-country bike tour from Baltimore to San Francisco, sleeping in church basements along the way to raise money for cancer research.
She toyed with a career in law but joined the Foreign Service right out of college and, according to her father, “found a perfect fit.” Her first post was in Caracas, Venezuela, where she started out, like most Foreign Service officers, stamping visas. Anne tried to keep life on the visa line lively and fun., according to colleague Gwen Simmons. But Smedinghoff was happiest when she was able to get off the visa line and mix with Venezuelan society and learn how the country’s culture and politics were different from her own.
“It was nirvana for her,” Simmons said. “She loved to interact with locals, especially with the kids. “
Smedinghoff then volunteered for Afghanistan in the embassy’s public affairs section. It was hard for her to tell her parents, who didn’t understand at first why she would apply for such a high-threat post.
“She went on to explain how she really thought that there was a lot that could be done there and she could be a part of it,” says her mother, Mary Beth Smedinghoff.
Reluctantly friends and family supported Anne Smedinghoff’s desire to be a positive force for change in the war-torn country. It was a running joke around family and friends that she would be bored to tears in a post such as London or Paris
“She really felt a calling to high-danger areas because of the big impact she was able to make,” says Paula Osborn, one of her close friends from college.
Catalina McCallum, another close college friend added. “She knew she was putting herself in a dangerous situation, In the face of that danger, she was brave enough to keep going and see what she could achieve and at the same telling us it was going to be OK.”
Most of her time in Afghanistan was spent at the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy compound in Kabul working with press, women’s groups and schools. Smedinghoff’s family felt she was safe within the compound walls, but she wanted to be out dealing with the local population.
“She was always finding projects and assignments that took her outside to the various provinces within and around Afghanistan," her father says. “That was what really drove her.”
Those rare trips outside the compound were in heavily armored convoys. Smedinghoff wrote home with excitement about her first flight in a Blackhawk helicopter, teaching Afghan children about Halloween and a delicious Afghan buffet at a press event at the palace. A soccer player back home, she was thrilled to play a match with the Afghan women’s national soccer. Plucked for high profile assignments, she appeared on Afghan television in November for the Eid holiday and helped organize a concert for Afghan child musicians at New York’s Carnegie Hall
Her supervisor John Rhatigan said since Anne’s death on Saturday, the embassy has been flooded with hundreds of emails from Afghans who met her during her eight months in the country.
“Anne was a superstar. “ Rhatigan said. “She was a superstar – dedicated and committed and she wanted to get out there and engage..”
Never content sitting still, Smedinghoff would travel every chance she got, trekking during her weeks of “rest and relaxation” from Kabul to Australia and most recently to Oman and a cycling trip to Jordan. Before her death, Smedinghoff was planning a trip to Italy with friends before moving back home to study Arabic for a year in Washington and then another year in Cairo, Egypt, before her next assignment in Algiers.
Smedinghoff last spoke to her parents on Easter Sunday after a visit to Kabul by Secretary of State John Kerry. Viewed as up-and-comer in the Foreign Service, Smedinghoff was chosen out of hundreds of foreign service officers at the embassy to assist Kerry during his visit and excitedly sent home pictures and congratulatory e-mail she received from James Cunningham, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.
"She was just so exuberant about everything that had transpired during that trip and what she had done," her mother says. "Obviously, we were very proud of her."
In an emotional tribute Sunday, Kerry recalled meeting and being impressed by Smedinghoff, saying she was “everything that was right about our Foreign Service, she was smart and capable and committed to our country.”
Back in Kabul her colleagues are struggling to make sense of the loss of what they described as a bright light in their lives.
“Anne was the force that held this team together,” said Solmaz Sharifi, who worked closely with Smedinghoff in the embassy’s press department. “I don’t think our press team will ever be the same now that we lost her. “