College grad trades fun for rebuilding Iraq

Sunday, May 9, 2004

The Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Scott Erwin is anything but the typical college graduate.

When the Northland resident walks in his commencement ceremony today, he will have made a journey more complicated and time-consuming than the short, in-town jaunts of his fellow seniors.

And he will get personal recognition from the president of his college, the University of Richmond in Virginia, who will laud him for his work in and out of the classroom.

Erwin spent his senior year working for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, helping Iraqi agencies sort out finances and operations.

On the side, he ran a program he created called Ambassadors of Democracy, teaching Iraqi university students about American democracy.

While his fellow students back on campus were reading texts, taking tests and partying, 22-year-old Erwin was helping the U.S. effort to rebuild Iraq.

People who know the Park Hill High School valedictorian say his decision to work in Iraq was no surprise.

"He's unbelievably gifted when it comes to social relations, but he's also a man of action," said Akiba Covitz a University of Richmond political science professor and mentor to Erwin. "There was always something about the relatively narrow confines of a college campus that always seemed to be a little bit confining for Scott."

On Thursday, friends of Erwin's gathered in his parents' home in Weatherby Lake to welcome him back to the United States on his quick jaunt home for commencement, and to hear his stories about life in the Green Zone, the heavily fortified area of Baghdad where the provisional authority works to remake Iraq's government and infrastructure.

He regaled them with stories of his experiences with warm, funny Iraqis, and shared the sadness he felt when an Iraqi woman he knew who translated for the Americans was killed.

"He's totally self-motivated. He has always had greater expectations of himself than we have," said his father, Bob Erwin, a lawyer turned teacher. "As parents you have high expectations, but he would always exceed ours."

It's stressful having their only child working in a country torn by war. Yet the Erwins take pride in his usual willingness to leap outside his comfort zone.

His intelligence and can-do attitude -- plus some good connections -- landed Erwin the job with the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Studying political science, he wanted internships in politics. So he worked for U.S. Sen. Kit Bond, then for U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, and then for the office of Vice President Dick Cheney.

He impressed the people at the White House enough that they tracked him down at Richmond at the beginning of his senior year last fall and asked whether he would work in Baghdad.

It was supposed to be for only about six weeks, helping prepare for an international conference intended to attract donations from other nations for rebuilding.

"I had worked hard for three years so I could have a carefree senior year," Erwin said in a phone conversation earlier this week from Baghdad, where he lives in a trailer on the property of one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces. "That was wiped out pretty early on."

After the initial donors' conference wrapped up, he started working with the Iraqi Ministry of Finance, then the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior.

Erwin still has a few courses to complete, so he will walk at commencement but not receive his diploma until he earns the final credits.

Erwin will return to Baghdad and stay at least through the transfer of power set for June 30. He might stay longer, though, to see his Ambassadors of Democracy program through.

He has no regrets about spending his senior year in a war zone but is a little wistful about the fun he's missed.

"I did have to sacrifice a little bit. ... It's something I won't get back," he said.

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