Forty years ago, Ambassador David D. Nelson ’78 was a senior studying economics and international relations at UW–Madison. While he had always been interested in public policy and international relations, building a career in the State Department was not part of his plan. In fact, he had never heard of the U.S. Foreign Service.
Given his natural curiosity for world issues and his talent for economics, Nelson was leaning toward a career in international business and preparing for his next step by taking the LSAT and GMAT.
But serendipity opened another path to Nelson through a chance sighting in a campus newspaper.
“While taking exams there was an ad in Daily Cardinal for the Foreign Service,” Nelson said. “I thought it was interesting, so I signed up for the exam and passed it. I did well on LSAT and GMATs too. However, I wanted a gap year before grad school. I figured I could be a kid backpacking through Europe with no money, or I could let the government send me somewhere for a couple of years with a salary and something interesting to do.”
At first, Nelson planned to work for the Foreign Service for a few years before pursuing graduate school. However, he found himself enjoying the varied assignments, kept all the more interesting as they change every few years.
Nelson began as a consular officer at the U.S. Consulate in Merida, Mexico, where he worked with visas and provided emergency support to U.S. travelers. Following this assignment, Nelson found himself increasingly drawing on his skills in economics through officer roles in Quito, Bonn, and Madrid.
Serendipity once again provided Nelson with the opportunity to elevate to the senior ranks of the Foreign Service during 1997, when he served in the Office of Monetary Affairs during the Asian Financial Crisis. Nelson played a pivotal role during this time, filling in as acting director of the office, before being asked to formally serve as director.
“A situation like the Asian Financial crisis takes leadership and organizational skills, but it also requires knowing how to use your team and an understanding of the issues,” Nelson said. “The professional and academic work I had done over the years allowed me to talk with economists and central banks with a fundamental understanding of the issues.”
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“Our role was to convince foreign governments to cooperate with us and stop the flow of money,” Nelson said. “We looked at how to maximize the impact on foreign policy, while minimizing collateral damage. Including allies whenever possible is key since that makes sanctions all the more effective.”
Nelson concluded his tenure in the U.S. Foreign Service after serving as Ambassador to Uruguay from 2009 to 2011. As ambassador, Nelson underlined U.S. support for education in Uruguay through visits to local schools and educational centers throughout the country, as well as bolstering the Fulbright program. Among his other achievements, Nelson facilitated investment in the country by U.S. businesses, encouraging them to also connect with and grow strong roots in the local community. He was also instrumental in growing the defense relationship between the U.S. and Uruguay.
In reflecting on his own career in the U.S. Foreign Service, Nelson said that it was rewarding personally and professionally. Since retiring and entering the private sector, Nelson has found his international experience to be invaluable as the world continues to become more interconnected and businesses and organizations seek new opportunities across borders.
For students looking to build a career in the Foreign Service, he recommended building an international dimension into their education, along with developing a strong skillset, knowledgebase, and willingness to embrace opportunity.
“Develop your critical thinking, writing, and communication skills,” Nelson said. “Develop an area of in-depth knowledge and be flexible so you are ready to grasp opportunity. It is a balance between keeping your eyes on your goals and at the same time having the flexibility to grasp an opportunity when it comes along.”