FARGO — When Cynthia Kierscht was 7, her family spent a summer living in Athens, Greece.

When she was in the sixth grade, her family moved to Fargo, where Kierscht attended school at Longfellow Elementary.

Later, as a student at Fargo North High School, Kierscht took part in a French language program that offered her the chance to spend a summer abroad in France, which she happily embraced.

To this day, she remains Facebook friends with her high school French teacher.

Those early experiences and others nudged Kierscht onto a life path that led to a 30-year career as a U.S. Foreign Service officer, a vocation that is decidedly ongoing as she was recently sworn in as the U.S. ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, a nation in northwest Africa.

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In a speech she gave during her swearing-in ceremony this past week at the U.S. State Department, Kierscht provided a snapshot of her years of service by reciting several key stats: She has served six presidents — including President Joe Biden — and lived on four continents and in six countries.

Her new job in Mauritania is Kierscht's first ambassadorship.

Her 30-year career as a U.S. Foreign Service officer has carried Cynthia Kierscht around the world. In this photo she leads a team on a visit to Saint Kitts and Nevis, a nation in the Caribbean. Special to The Forum
Her 30-year career as a U.S. Foreign Service officer has carried Cynthia Kierscht around the world. In this photo she leads a team on a visit to Saint Kitts and Nevis, a nation in the Caribbean. Special to The Forum

She describes herself as a career ambassador, which differs from a political ambassador in that the latter is typically someone who contributes in some way to a political campaign and receives an ambassadorship as a reward.

Kierscht graduated from Fargo North High School in 1983.

Twenty-five years later, she was inducted into the school's Hall of Fame.

She thinks that's likely due to a number of factors, including winning a couple of state championships with the school debate team, as well as being part of All State Orchestra while at North High.

After high school, Kierscht went on to graduate from Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., with a degree in international relations. Later, she earned a master's degree in public policy from Harvard University.

During her college years, she took the foreign service exam, an endeavor that involves a six-hour written test and a day-long oral exam.

The only place in North Dakota where the written test was available was in Grand Forks. So, Kierscht said, one cold winter morning, she and a friend drove to Grand Forks to take the test.

She later took the oral exam while living in the Boston area.

Kierscht was hired by the U.S. State Department in September 1990.

First stop: Cairo

Her first tour was in Cairo, Egypt, "which was so exotic for a kid from Fargo, to be in the middle of the desert with the pyramids," Kierscht recalled, adding that during her time there she made friends she remains close with today.

Cynthia Kierscht, center, is seen in this photo from 1997 in Moscow. At the time, Kiercht did the advance work for U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's visits around the world. Special to The Forum.
Cynthia Kierscht, center, is seen in this photo from 1997 in Moscow. At the time, Kiercht did the advance work for U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's visits around the world. Special to The Forum.

"I would go back there in a heartbeat because of how very special it really was," said Kierscht, whose next posting after Egypt was a two-year stay in the Marseilles area of southern France.

"It wasn't a real hardship, let me say," she said of her time in France, during which she met a number of American celebrities who had moved to the area, including stars like Tina Turner and the late soul singer Nina Simone.

In the case of Simone, Kierscht said she became friends with the singer/songwriter and civil rights activist and ended up visiting her house several times.

Kierscht said one reason she is where she is today is because of the education she received from the Fargo public school system, a system her grandmother, Cynthia Selland, taught in for many decades.

"My grandmother was a geography teacher, which I think probably contributed in some part to my curiosity about the world," said Kierscht, who had her grandmother for a teacher in seventh grade when she attended Ben Franklin Junior High.

She remembers that school year as one of her best experiences ever, despite it being mortifying at the time.

Cynthia Kierscht's three-decades long career as a U.S. Foreign Service officer has led to her recent appointment as U.S. ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. She is seen in this photo from 2012 with Air Force One behind her in Cartagena, Colombia. At the time, Kierscht organized then President Barack Obama's visit to the Summit of the Americas. Special to The Forum.
Cynthia Kierscht's three-decades long career as a U.S. Foreign Service officer has led to her recent appointment as U.S. ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. She is seen in this photo from 2012 with Air Force One behind her in Cartagena, Colombia. At the time, Kierscht organized then President Barack Obama's visit to the Summit of the Americas. Special to The Forum.

"I probably never worked as hard as I worked in that class, because I definitely wanted to make sure no one thought I was going to get a good grade just because I was the granddaughter," Kierscht said. Her family established a scholarship in her grandmother's name with Fargo Public Schools to give to the person chosen as the district's teacher of the year.

"I think the Fargo public school system is amazing and not just because my grandmother taught in it," Kierscht said.

"I think it really prepared me very, very well for college and then grad school," she said, adding that working in the foreign service has been a good fit for her.

"No day is ever the same and no tour that you do is ever the same, and that has really been what has kept me at it for 30 years. It kind of fulfills my thirst for life-long learning," Kierscht said.

'Can't imagine anything better'

And after three decades in the same job, about half of which was spent in Washington and half abroad, Kierscht said it still strikes her as something special.

"I can't imagine anything better than representing the American people abroad; we're also working to make the world a better place," Kierscht said, adding it's hard for her to imagine another job that would allow her to do all of that.

The job often involves helping American citizens abroad who encounter problems such as getting robbed or losing their passports.

Kierscht said her duties in France included dealing with American citizens in trouble, such as visiting Americans who, for one reason or another, had landed in prison.

She recalled her years in North Dakota as an idyllic time and Fargo as a place where you could leave your front door unlocked and your car running when you went to the grocery store in the middle of the winter.

And while the allure of travel never fades, Kierscht said there is something about home that is equally satisfying.

In the speech she gave during her swearing-in ceremony as ambassador, Kierscht said she talked about how she never knew how patriotic she was until she was returning to North Dakota after two years of living in Egypt, a largely desert country.

The realization came as she was flying over farm country in the middle of the U.S.

"It just had these perfect green and yellow squares of the fields below me and there was something about that that made me feel that America was just perfect," Kierscht said.

Anyone interested in pursuing a career in foreign service can check out the Department of State's career website at www.careers.state.gov/.