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North Korea Nicole Finneman grew up in and around Forest Lake Area Schools. She started off in our very own Forest View Elementary, cruised through 3 years at Central Junior High, and graduated from Forest Lake Area High School with the class of '99. Nicole, daughter of Mark and Diane Finneman, has been looking for new places to learn and grow ever since. 


Find out more about Nicole's experiences from in own words from her email interview with us:


Where did you go to college, and what degree(s) did you receive?
Kalamazoo College, Kalamazoo Michigan (BA in Mathematics and Comparative Religions, 2003)
The American University School of International Service, Washington D.C. (MA in International Negotiation, 2008)


Your life and career have taken you all over the world. Please share with us some of the things that you have done, places you have been, and experiences you have lived.

Zimbabwe I've lived and worked in eight countries on six continents - as a teacher, a negotiator, and now as a career diplomat. As a diplomat, I represent the United States 24 hours day/7 days a week in whatever country that I am asked to serve in - and right now that means Zimbabwe in southern Africa. Zimbabwe is a beautiful country with warm people, a perfect climate, and some of the most breathtaking sites I have ever seen, including the "Machu Picchu of Africa," Great Zimbabwe monument... so it's not so much of a hardship. (Picture to left shows Nikki at entrepreneur fair she produced in 2015.)



with friend in Kabul    Protective gear  

Mexico Prep for Obama Before this I served for a year in Kabul, Afghanistan -- which was extremely challenging. And before that, Mexico City, Mexico -- which was extremely delicious. I was a teacher in Ecuador, Italy and South Korea following college, and during graduate school, became a nuclear negotiator with North Korea.



North Korea, to date, is the most mind-bending of my experiences. I spent 4+ years working with the former White House negotiator to North Korea, Ambassador Charles Pritchard. We would be invited to visit North Korea and have discussions with regime leaders, visit their nuclear facilities, then report back to the U.S. and South Korean governments. Each visit I was watched closely at all times, but as a guest, was also given freedom to see and experience more of the city and countryside than many. Some photos from 2008, 2009, and 2010 trips are still available online. Of course, those were the photos the North Koreans allowed me to take and keep. One thing I will mention is, aside from the obvious hollywood humor, the Seth Rogan movie, "The Interview," is a fairly accurate depiction of the realities in Pyongyang!


            Ambassador Pritchard         North Korea 2009   


Aside from North Korea, I have loved almost every where I have lived and worked. I love learning languages, eating delicious food and learning that yes, even us Minnesotans (where Ketchup is a spice) can develop a tolerance for spicy food - it can be done! And luckily, once I got over my "picky Nikki" identity, it turned out that most strange food is actually pretty delicious. Though, I still have my qualms when, as a diplomat, I find myself in situations where food that is still moving on the plate is being offered to me by a local leader or chief and it's incredibly important that I accept the good will gesture for the sake of our relations... Luckily there are tricks ;)


Because of the breadth of the cultures I have lived in, and my obsession to constantly seek out common ground, I now specialize in public communications and media relations in the various countries I work in. That means I have to stay on top of technologies including various social media, and the level of reach and penetration they have in each country. Africa is an incredibly young continent, and the youth are communicating in ways their parents never dreamed of. I enjoy finding ways to reach out to them and share information, opportunities, and to seek discourse and common ground in all things - after all, the U.S. represents freedom of expression at all levels, at all times. It does mean I could be quoted for anything I say at any time (so I should be careful), and trying to explain the current challenges the U.S. faces to inquiring minds abroad is not always easy (race relations, gun violence, etc), but I am incredibly honored to be able to represent my country and do so in an honest, open and transparent way - just as we as a country are doing.


America is a work in progress - that's what makes us great. We have a long way to go before we've "nailed" anything, but we hide nothing. We endeavor to debate, disagree, and evolve openly. And that is an impossible dream in some places on earth. So, while I have clearly started to ramble on a tangent, all this is to say I am an incredibly proud patriot who has been honored to represent the U.S. all day every day for the last 5+ years, despite the dangers I have encountered and struggles it has entailed.


What experiences at Forest Lake Area Schools helped to prepare you for your life after high school?
I had great teachers and was surrounded by smart, driven peers; however my extra curricular activities stand out as formative experiences for me - including soccer, track, theater, and Future Problem Solving. I regularly think back on moments of overcoming laziness and lack of work ethic (track), conquering the desire but hesitation to do something scary (theater), attacking a situation and a problem productively (FPS), and all of the million lessons that come along with teamwork and bringing others up along side you or being grateful for others pulling you up (soccer). In fact, the 1996-1998 fall seasons of the Forest Lake High School Girls Varsity Soccer Team remain my fondest and most formative memories for how women can and should support each other, versus break each other down or compete.

Are there any specific staff members that made a real difference in your life choices or success, and why?
My teachers are what made my experience so there are quite a few, but I have to give special mention to Sra. Megan Espe-Och, Spanish teacher and overall adventure encourager who taught me to say YES to new things; Sue Stennes-Rogness, who can't help but do everything she can to connect her students to the real life, real government; and Larry Matzdorf, a (recently retired) Math teacher who made math fun, could explain things in different ways (because I never got it the first time), and who, along with Ms. King at Central Jr. High, instilled a passion for problem solving in me that carried me through my Math and Negotiations degrees and which I employ on a daily basis as a diplomat.


Do you have any advice for the students of Forest Lake Area schools?
Say yes to things outside of your comfort zone - be they "weird" extra curricular activities or clubs you'd like to be involved in but "aren't sure" of, sports that you want to play but don't think you'll be "as good as so-and-so," or anything else you don't think you have the time or patience for but if you are being honest with yourself, actually kind of interest you. Do those things! Work on your multi-tasking and various interests and hobby-building now.


The great news is that high school ends and you move on with life and life should only get better - but that doesn't mean you can't soak up all that is being offered to you now and gain from those experiences. I had a wonderful time in high school in Forest Lake, but that doesn't mean I don't have plenty I am embarrassed about and it doesn't mean I wasn't really ready to move on the day after graduation - to another state, in fact. "Do high school" like you know it's not going to last but that you can still milk it for all its worth, leave it all on the field, and be better prepared for the next step as a result.

with husband  Recruiting for Kalamazoo College

(Photos submitted)