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SCOTT REESE The UI alum has parlayed a teaching stint with a tough classroom crowd into a diplomatic career.

Teaching kids from the inner city in Albany, New York, may seem like an unconventional start for an American diplomat. But University of Iowa alumnus Scott Reese, 44, says it makes perfect sense. In fact, he credits the experience with helping him to land a state department position after twice failing the oral section of the Foreign Service Exam.

 “I like to think it’s what got me the job, because part of the oral process is describing how you deal with cultures different than your own,” says Reese, who most recently served as vice consul at the U.S. embassy in Oslo, Norway.

Reese earned a BA degree in general studies in 1987 and a BS in computer science in 1989, then held information technology positions with the University Hygienic Laboratory and the UI College of Education. In 1997, he moved with his wife, Virginie Delfosse-Reese, to the East Coast, eventually settling in Albany.

After working in three different jobs while pursuing a Ph.D., Reese decided his true passion was teaching. He accepted a job teaching algebra at Albany High School. On the first day of class, he learned he’d been assigned to a special program for inner city kids with behavioral problems.

“It took me some time to find a way to get through to the kids,” Reese says. “Most of them were from what we’d call broken homes, many were drug users, and many were in gangs. A fair number had run-ins with the police. It was a completely different culture.”

Colleagues thought Reese would last a few months. He stayed two years, leaving only upon receiving clearance from the U.S. state department. During that time, he developed a rapport with his students.

Key to getting through, he says, was showing the students respect, differences aside. Reese learned their slang, adding words such as “do-rag”—a cap made trendy by rap artists—to his vocabulary.

But the job wasn’t without its challenges. Students threatened to kill Reese twice, and he was injured breaking up fights.

A native of Des Moines and Pella, Reese today is a seasoned diplomat, having served in Canada, Haiti, and Sweden in addition to Norway. He has interacted with everyone from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the Norwegian rock group A-Ha to members of Norway’s royal family.

Reese returned for home leave in May. He visited the UI to speak to the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council and meet students majoring in international studies—a program he wishes had existed during his student days, Reese says. Listening to talks by visiting diplomats back then, he had no idea he’d someday be the one behind the podium.

Beginning this fall, Reese will serve at the U.S. embassy in Mali for two years doing political, human rights and foreign aid work. The opportunity to have an impact on the lives of individuals and, by extension, the world is what drives him.

“I like helping people, and I think I’m a better diplomat because of all the other experiences I’ve had,” Reese says. “This is such a wonderful opportunity to serve my country and to make a difference.”

Story by Lois Gray; Photo by Tom Jorgensen

August 13, 2007