UWM alumnus Luis Arreaga, U.S. Ambassador to Iceland, earned his MS in management in 1976 and his PhD in economics in 1981. Nominated to his ambassadorship in April 2010, he was confirmed by the Senate on Aug. 5, 2010. Arreaga spoke with us by phone on March 31, from his office In Iceland.
Q. You have led a well-traveled life. What influenced you to choose Milwaukee and UWM for graduate school?
A. I am from Guatemala and knew I wanted to come to the United States for my studies. I was looking for a place with a supportive network, and we had a family friend in Milwaukee. I visited, looked around and really liked it. The economics department had a family-feel and very supportive professors.
Q. How did your UWM education prepare you for your career path?
A. UWM has been very, very good to me, and I am proud of my degrees. Right out of UWM, I joined the Foreign Service as an economist focused in the area of economic development. My economics training provided excellent preparation for the work, especially the courses in econometrics and economic development. Being bilingual was also an asset.
Q. Are there any specific classes, professors or moments from your time at UWM that particularly stand out in your memory?
A. Markos Mamalakis helped me see the world and global issues from a new perspective. Swarnjit Arora was always generous with his time and made a difficult subject very accessible and interesting. I also recall great classes by Professors Boris Pesek and John Walter Elliott. [Professor Emeritus Mamalakis is retired from the Department of Economics; Professor Arora continues to research and teach in the Department of Economics; and Economics Professor Pesek and Business Professor Elliott are deceased.]
Q. How did you get nominated to be an ambassador and why Iceland?
A. My first Foreign Service job as an economist was very technical in nature, and I was there for 10 years. I wanted to get into diplomacy so I joined the State Department where I’ve held various diplomatic positions in Panama, Canada, Washington DC, Switzerland, Spain, Peru, El Salvador and Honduras. Immediately before becoming Ambassador to Iceland, I was working in a recruiting role for the Foreign Service.
The process for ambassadorship begins when the State Department announces open positions. Those who are interested send in a self-nomination, and the review process begins. In my case, my economics training helped match me with Iceland because they needed someone with that background given Iceland’s economic crisis.
Q. What is the day-to-day life of an ambassador like and what do you hope to accomplish professionally while in Iceland?
A. I was sent to Reykjavik to forge relationships between Iceland and the United States in the broadest sense. My days include everything from working with U.S. companies who want to do business in Iceland to providing help to U.S. citizens living in Iceland who are experiencing some type of problem. For example, I might meet with a business owner to brief him/her on the realities of conducting business in Iceland. Our countries share many similar values, but the cultural approach may be different. I might also help coordinate the process of getting an airplane carrying a sick U.S. citizen onto the ground and getting that person medical assistance. When Eyjafjallajökull erupted, air traffic was severely impacted around the world. Our Embassy organized a conference for representatives from airlines, aircraft manufacturers, the FAA, and US and European government agencies to discuss the lessons learned. My job changes from day to day, but ultimately it is all about building relationships and building ties between people. It is my job to facilitate and enable contact between people and organizations. I need to be a generalist and a problem solver. Having a broad background, an open mind and a willingness to learn are the most important criteria for this job because everything under the sun may come your way.
Q. Iceland has some of the cleanest water and air in the world. What can the U.S. learn from Iceland regarding environmental protection and geothermal projects?
A. Iceland and the U.S. make great partners on environmental issues, especially in the area of geothermal energy because Iceland has depth of expertise while the U.S. is the largest producer of geothermal energy. We signed a bilateral agreement for research and development to leverage both countries’ strengths – Icelandic know-how plus the U.S.’ ability to provide capital and infrastructure – in order to develop new technologies and share that information with the world. For example, we have brought in African officials so that they could see geothermal power generation in action and understand how it might be used in the eastern valley area of Africa where there is tremendous potential to implement this technology. Iceland is fortunate to sit on a hot spot for magma but what is needed world-wide is the ability to transport this type of energy and technology to other parts of the world.
Q. In August 2010, a group of our undergraduate and graduate Geosciences students and faculty traveled to Iceland to study glaciers and volcanoes for two weeks. Why is Iceland a great place to visit as a study abroad or fieldwork destination?
A. Iceland grows an inch a year because it straddles separating tectonic plates over the mid-Atlantic ridge, and its volcanic activity is caused by its unusual proximity to the magma beneath which is called a geological “hot spot.” Iceland is literally a living laboratory for students to study energy and more. Icelanders are extremely entrepreneurial and technologically-savvy. Internet penetration is almost 100 percent, and there are many high-tech companies based here. Genetics research is another large industry in Iceland. So there are diverse and high-quality opportunities for student-learning related to the sciences, business and technology. There is a rich educational tradition of exchange, and Icelandic students are encouraged to study abroad. Experiencing the world is a value that is ingrained in the Icelandic culture. Most important for any U.S. student coming to Iceland is to make sure to get out and meet the local people. They will find a very open and welcoming society where hard work, independence, endurance and success are valued. After all, Icelanders literally carved their history out of a rock in the middle of the ocean.
Q. Now that you have been living in Iceland for a little while, which parts of Icelandic culture have surprised or fascinated you?
A. Iceland is one of the best places in the world to live. It is both highly traditional and very modern at the same time, and people are proud of their history and origins. They will be the first to tell you about Leif Ericsson! The family unit is very powerful and greatly valued, as are the arts and culture. I find it interesting how direct Icelanders are. There are no double entendres, and they will say exactly what they think in a very polite and non-confrontational manner. Every place in the world has its uniqueness and extremes, and I believe they are all worth trying and experiencing. Every day is another opportunity to learn something new and that is exactly what I am doing here in Iceland.