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Alum, former US diplomat continues public service by transitioning to teaching

Alumni Community Engagement May 28, 2024

Indiana University South Bend alum Les Cornelison Service to others has always been a cornerstone of Indiana University South Bend alum Les Cornelison’s life calling. After serving in the Marines, Les enrolled at IU South Bend and earned his bachelor’s degree in economics. Upon graduation, he asked himself what was next.

“I knew I wanted to touch the world, do something different,” explains Les. “I had this big service mindset.”

This led to Les becoming a firefighter for about a decade. During this time, he came back to IU South Bend to pursue his MBA part-time while working as a fire chief and eventually captain and raising his two sons with his wife. After earning his MBA, Les briefly made a foray into the manufacturing industry, but he realized that wasn’t right for him.

“I still had this ‘I want to serve’ mindset,” says Les.

His best friend, a Secret Service agent, suggested that Les consider a career as a United States diplomat. Although the competition is fierce for diplomats - it is estimated that only about 1 percent of the approximately 20,000 applicants are hired annually - Les decided to go for it and take the initial test, on which he scored very high.

“I remember being in the final interview after about a year-long process. I was in the room with graduates from Yale, Harvard, and Stanford, and some high-level Pentagon officers, and I’m a fireman who graduated from Indiana University South Bend,” recalls Les. “But I ended up being number one on the list, which was emboldening and humbling to me.”

His first assignment as a United States diplomat was in China, which required him to become fluent in Mandarin Chinese. He served a few years in China and did a variety of jobs, including adoptions, visa, and other political work. His next assignment was in Manilla, Philippines, where his diplomatic service was more visa focused. Then, Les unfortunately was injured and no longer medically cleared to serve.

“Those were my darkest days, and everything I worked for seemed to be destroyed overnight. But my life is not about that. A lot of people ask what happened and my response is always that I don’t talk about the injury, but I talk about how I came out of it,” explains Les.

During his physical recovery, when he had limited movement, Les credits watching a video of US Navy Admiral William H. McRaven’s “Make Your Bed” speech, which highlights the importance of taking small actions to instill pride and self-confidence. It inspired him to reinvent himself.

“I still wanted to serve, and I still had the passion,” said Les.

He decided to channel his need to make a difference by being a substitute teacher and ended up loving it so much, he considered teaching as his new chapter. Although Les originally thought it was too late for him to get another four-year degree, he learned about the Transition to Teaching program from IU South Bend’s School of Education, which provides an accelerated path to teacher licensure in Indiana for individuals with a bachelor’s degree.

As Les worked toward earning his teacher licensure, which included student teaching at Discovery Middle School, he was also approached to be an adjunct professor for IU South Bend’s Judd Leighton School of Business and Economics, teaching Organizational Behavior and Introduction to Business courses due to his extensive leadership background.

His experience as a diplomat has been an asset in making civics understandable and engaging to area middle school students. Indiana recently changed its curriculum requirements, requiring a civics class for sixth graders. Since it was not part of an official curriculum, Les helped to plan and build the civics unit for Discovery Middle School.

Now that Les has recently completed the Transition to Teaching program, he is eagerly awaiting the chance to get into the classroom full time and make a positive impact on students.

“My biggest drive is I want to be adding value to my students,” said Les. “I have my pension. I don’t need to work, but I want to give back and help develop a love of learning in my students.”

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