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Global security professional deepens understanding, finds new perspective through master’s degree program

headshot of ASU alum John Oliveira

John Oliveira

September 09, 2020

In May, John Oliveira graduated with a master’s degree in global security from Arizona State University's School of Politics and Global Studies. But this wasn’t his first time delving into issues relating to global security.

For over a decade, Oliveira worked in a variety of global security roles, traveling all around the world — from Iraq, Kenya and Mozambique to South Africa, Jordan, Mexico, Bolivia and Sudan. He collaborated with U.S. and foreign militaries, as well as civilian and local security forces to build and maintain relationships with tribes, local communities, private industry and governments. He also served in the U.S. Army Special Operations Command and was honorably discharged in the late 1990s. 

After building a successful, rewarding career as a global security consultant and gaining invaluable on-the-ground experience, he decided to take time away from work to complete the online master’s degree program in one year. He said that the program added to the wealth of experience and opportunities he had received through his career, teaching him new skills and a deeper understanding of global conflict and international security.

“The master’s in global security program succeeded in teaching this old dog new tricks,” Oliveira said. “It has taken my worldly experiences on the ground and provided political context to those experiences. I am no longer that private waiting in my muddy foxhole anxiously pondering what we are doing there. I am now the old warrior sage filled with knowledge and confidence.”

Oliveira said he also found a new perspective on his work and himself through his interactions with classmates.

“I really enjoyed engaging in discussions with other students because there was such a myriad of different ages, races and experiences,” he said. “I was probably the oldest person in the group so it was interesting to hear the perspective of a 24-year-old and reflect back on whether I had that same perspective at that age and think about how much it's changed.”

Oliveria shared more about his experiences and what motivated him to succeed.

Question: What inspired you to pursue a master’s degree in global security from Arizona State University?

Answer: It was always on my bucket list to finish my graduate degree. At first, my intention was to go into anthropology. I'd spent almost 15 years living with different cultural groups and tribes around the world. During that time I made a lot of observations and took copious notes on all the different aspects of their lives. I had a real interest in that type of cultural experience and trying to understand human behavior. As I was looking through different programs, the master’s program in global security popped up and I thought that really seemed to be in line with my interests. I felt I had a lot of experiences that would correlate well with the program and thought I might be able to combine my passion for cultural anthropology with global security.

Q: Did you encounter any challenges during your time in the master’s degree program? How did you overcome them?

A: Anytime you learn is a challenge — or at least you would hope it's a challenge, and it should be. It’s been about 20 years since I was in college at California State University, Monterey Bay, pursuing a degree in global studies, so certainly there were challenges from a general academic standpoint like writing papers and getting back into that. A more personal challenge for me was trying to juxtapose my experiences with what I was being told in class and what I was learning. A lot of times I would find I'd have a different perspective, whether it was the right or the wrong perspective, but at times it was a challenge trying to get past some of my experiences while not getting too focused on this confirmation bias I was experiencing. It took a little bit of self-aware humility to get going. Once I was able to do that, I learned very quickly and easily.

Q: How was your experience pursuing a degree in an online format?

A: My biggest concern was not having the ability to interact with my instructors because that's such an important part of trying to figure things out and get some clarity on the issues. But in this program I could email one of my professors and we could have a discussion outside of class, whether it was on Zoom or in person since I am fortunate enough to live in Arizona. So that relieved a huge part of what would have been more challenging. In this program there’s always the opportunity to interact. Even those instructors that were living in Washington, D.C., or had other jobs still made themselves available. I think that's a huge part of the success of this program or any online program.

Q: What’s your favorite part about working in global security?

A: The people. It’s always strange when I come home and I hear a lot of derogatory things, for instance, about Muslims or Islam. I understand of course that a lot of people in the West have just never experienced these cultures or religions. But I’ve had the opportunity to actually live in villages in Africa, South America and the Middle East. I lived in a mosque for a long time. I felt safer in those villages than I do in a lot of other places because there’s wonderful people there. I get to experience people as they really are, not in the way we may see them in the West. It gives me a different perspective.

Q: What would you tell other professionals like yourself who are interested in returning to higher education? 

A: You should always stay curious and you should always want to learn more. Even though my degree program is done I'm still learning more, I'm still taking other courses trying to learn more. If you want to do it and you're passionate about doing it, then it's not going to be difficult. It might be challenging, but it's certainly something that can be done. For anybody who’s interested in going into this particular program, my advice is to not be afraid of it because the support system within the global security program is incredible. Instructors and professors are there all the time and have great backgrounds. They’re always willing to answer any questions you might have.

Q: What has been your biggest motivation to succeed?

A: I would say a great deal of my motivation to succeed has to do with my children. Having children makes you want to succeed for them and be a good role model for them. My oldest son graduated with his PhD last year and all my other children are in college and doing well. I think it's a lot like being in combat, where you're motivated a lot by the person next to you and wanting them to live and succeed. When you have children, you have the same sort of bond and feeling with them, you want to do well so that they can succeed in whatever it may be and have a future.