We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Otherwise, we'll assume you're OK to continue.

Durham University

School of Modern Languages & Cultures

James Lee (French, 1965)

Lee photo

When I went up to Durham, I wasn’t really thinking about what I would do as a career. It was just that I was better at languages than other things so there was no decision to make, I would do a degree in French. Being at Durham opened up a whole new world, especially for someone born and raised under grey northern skies while longing for immersion in the Mediterranean world.

The career-guidance staff simply told language graduands that all we could do was teach. This made me very angry and so I determined, even though I wanted to teach more than anything else, that I would show that we language nerds had a world of opportunities to choose from. So I applied myself, with the result that I turned down an offer to become an articled clerk at a chartered accountant firm owned by an old boy of my school. I was also offered a very good job at a woollen mill. The money was unbelievable. I took great pleasure in going back to the careers officer and telling him that I had been offered two jobs but was choosing instead to do a postgraduate degree in teaching English as a second language. He told me I was wasting my time. How very wrong he was.

Armed with a Durham degree and a Bangor DipTESL, I realized that I had a passport to anywhere I wanted to go. I started off teaching at the Folk Universitet in Sweden, an exhilarating experience. While I was there, I saw an advertisement in the TES for lecturers in Haile Selassie I University. I applied and was offered a position. I told my Durham roommate that I was going to Addis Ababa. ‘Is that in north or south Wales?’ he asked. For the next eight years, I was immersed in international university life. My French and Italian were very useful and opened up fabulous possibilities of speaking with older, educated Ethiopians. I was also able to teach some French before becoming the Assistant Dean of Arts at only 26 years old.

An opportunity arose for me to take a sabbatical at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. The Department of French and Italian offered me a graduate fellowship to pursue a PhD. The four years that I spent at Vanderbilt were the most intellectually rewarding and challenging of my life. I was being paid to do what I loved – exploring the medieval world with a terrific mentor. Being with other people who shared my love of language and literature helped me to grow in many unexpected ways. As an immeasurable bonus, I met Barbara, the love of my life, who was also doing a PhD in medieval French literature, and we later married and are still sharing France and everything French together.

The world was changing and Ethiopia fell into civil war, which prevented me from staying there. It was at the time of the Thatcher cuts and there was no chance of someone like me finding a job teaching French in England. So, off it was again to the USA, via a year as adviser to the President of the Universidad Autónoma de Aguascalientes, Mexico. Then a new venture arose, teaching communication skills to high-powered corporate executives and engineers in Houston, Texas.

It was my good fortune to meet an Ethiopian from the United Nations. He put me in touch with someone at UN Headquarters in New York who was looking for an editor. Editors in the UN must edit in at least two of the official languages and I had three – English, French and Spanish. I was offered the job and began a new phase of my career, one that proved to be among the most rewarding: I have been able to use my language skills; I have met fascinating people from all over the world; I have travelled extensively; and I have witnessed first-hand some of the crucial moments of history.

The story doesn’t stop here. One day almost thirty years ago, someone asked me in the lift if I’d like to be an ombudsman. I thought it sounded like a good thing to do and so I said yes, whereupon I was appointed to the Ombudsman Panel. Once again, language skills proved to be of great importance – people who are facing problems in the workplace welcome the chance to explain matters in their own language or at least in a language in which they feel comfortable. As society has increasingly recognized the benefits of informal conflict resolution over the past two decades, there has been a growing reliance on trained personnel who can address conflict and crisis in a confidential, informal, impartial and independent manner. The Office of the Ombudsman for United Nations Funds and Programmes was created in 2002 and I was invited to serve as the first ombudsman for a term of five years. I have now retired but am still very active as a consultant to the Office.

None of this could have happened, I believe, without the very special grounding I had in Durham, which helped me to explore my language skills, engage with people from different ethnic and social backgrounds and bear in mind that sharing knowledge is the greatest gift one can have.

United Nations Ombudsman and Mediation Services website