DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — On a night last week when Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad was hosting a holiday reception at the governor’s mansion in Des Moines, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, typically close at his side during such events, was conspicuously absent.

Instead of mingling over hors d’oeuvres in Terrace Hill’s elegance as Branstad’s highly visible No. 2, Reynolds was in a college classroom on the city’s west side with the same title as the rest of the 15 or so others in the room: student.

Reynolds this year has made strides toward earning her bachelor’s degree, no small feat since Branstad has tasked her with statewide education initiatives and she spent the fall campaigning for her fellow Republican candidates.

The goal is personal, a way to inspire others weighing mid-life changes, not part of a plan to help set her up, should she decide to run for governor after Branstad, she said.

But her goal of having her degree in hand within three years would do just that, should Branstad seek and win re-election in 2014.

“That has always been something I’ve wanted to do, a goal I’ve set for myself, a priority,” Reynolds said in an Associated Press interview. “This is strictly a goal for me.”

Reynolds is taking night courses toward a bachelor’s degree in public administration at Upper Iowa University in West Des Moines. The school is a frequent stop for professionals filling gaps in their resumes, military veterans, recent immigrants and students like Reynolds, who are returning to school after building a life committed to other goals.

She set her own education aside after what she describes as an unfocused transition from tiny St. Charles in Madison County to Northwest Missouri State University. Reynolds left school after two years to enter the work world, after which her personal focus turned to marriage and then raising three daughters.

“It sounds like it’s so easy to go back,” said Reynolds, now 53. “But there’s something … that makes it hard.”

Although she deflects questions about her political future, Reynolds would be part of the overwhelming minority, should she become governor without a bachelor’s degree. Indeed, the nation’s governorships are populated with high-level scholars, many with Ivy League backgrounds, but only two who have not completed four-year degrees: Arizona’s Jan Brewer and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker.

Still, Reynolds’ ascent as a public official has hardly been hindered. She learned the ropes as a staffer in the Clarke County treasurer’s office in the 1990s before winning three straight terms as treasurer, a seat in the Iowa Senate in 2008 and the lieutenant governorship in 2010.

Despite having taken classes sporadically over the years, Reynolds finally has the long-postponed goal in her sights.

Since January, she has completed four courses, fitting the long, weekly night sessions and homework into a busy schedule as Branstad’s chief promoter for a science and technology education initiative, economic development advocate and local government liaison.

Aides said Reynolds has often spent the sometimes late hours en route to or from corners of Iowa in the back of a state SUV reading course material or writing. Reynolds confesses to worrying about her performance and has been known to text her test scores to staff to express relief. Reynolds has done well in her classes, and passed them, although aides did not provide her grades.

One night last fall, she raced from a public event in Des Moines after 10 p.m. to campus to beat an assignment deadline, waiting at the school door in the dark until her instructor appeared.

Reynolds said she recognizes her limits. She tried taking an online course over the summer, but quit after a poor Internet connection prevented her from taking a quiz while she was on a trade mission to Germany.

“I want to be realistic about it,” she said. “I don’t want to set myself up to fail.”

As a student, Reynolds is inquisitive, prompt and thorough, said instructor Ron Puhlman, who has had her in two of his classes, including the public affairs course that ended last week. She listens attentively to other students with no pretense and participates regularly. Puhlman called it “a delight,” when Reynolds spoke up to help clarify a point he was making about the state court system.

“She’s just like any other student that’s going back to school after being away,” Puhlman said. “I should say, she’s just like any other really good student.”

Reynolds is scheduled to begin a fifth course in early January. She will be spending four hours every Monday evening for eight weeks, learning about public budgeting.

If all goes well, she’ll be done on Feb. 25, in time to lead a late-February trade mission to Vietnam and the Philippines.

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