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Alum's global reach started at West campus

June 29, 2010

In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks stated his argument for the value of education in the humanities – “history, English and art classes” – even as today’s job market worsens. As he noted the many benefits of a well-versed familiarity with the humanities, he could have included the example of Mike Mesquita, an Arizona State University graduate who received his B.A. in history from the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences in 2006.

Since his commencement and the traditional touching of the Paley Gates at the university’s West campus, Mesquita has reflected his New College education in the humanities during a two-year hitch with the U.S. Peace Corps and as he prepares for his pursuit of a master’s degree in international relations and, specifically, Central Asian securities studies. 

He will enroll at the end of this summer in graduate courses at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, the English-speaking world’s third-oldest university, after considering opportunities at Fordham University, the University of Maryland and the University of Denver.

He says his New College coursework and the school’s professors helped shape his interest in international relations and making an impact on others’ lives.

“Studying at ASU sparked my interest for international relations,” said the 1999 graduate of Peoria High School in Peoria, Ariz. 

“The classes I took on genocide and international politics redirected my focus from world history to current social and political events. Those classes and others that I took opened my eyes and allowed me to look at historical and political events from a different perspective; I had some great professors to thank for that.”

His newfound perspective took him to northern Kazakhstan as a Peace Corps volunteer from August 2007 through November 2009 where he taught English at North Kazakhstan University in Petropavlovsk. During his service, he also organized various English clubs at the public library, organized and presented at professional development seminars, and volunteered at the orphanage in the city that lies 40 miles south of Kazakhstan’s northern border with Russia.

“Volunteering was a 24/7 job,” he said. “Studying history has shown me the stories of the haves and have-nots, and my Peace Corps service gave me the chance to observe first-hand.

“Simply being born in the U.S. has afforded us so many opportunities that many around the world may never have. Is there anything I can do to change that? I joined the Peace Corps thinking I could, but soon realized how naïve I was. I can’t change the world but I can make an impact in small communities or in individuals. It has been my personal goal to do that – to learn and teach, and the humanities have always had that focus.”

One of Mesquita’s mentors, Stephen Toth, an associate professor of history, says the student’s academic and personal success is a reflection of New College’s focus.

“New College helps bring the ‘world’ to our students,” said Toth, who had Mesquita in a pair of upper division course, Historical Methods and History of Genocide. “Mike had the opportunity to take a wide array of courses that introduced him to the history of Europe, Africa and Latin America. In this sense, he was trained to make connections between not only the past and the present, but to recognize and understand how the world is interconnected and interdependent.”

As he turns his focus to St. Andrews, Mesquita will take his New College research lessons and its interdisciplinary approach with him.

“The emphasis on research was crucial, and it will continue to be a benefit,” he said. “But, developing ‘how’ to think has been invaluable, too. My professors taught me how to ask the right questions, find unbiased answers and form my own opinions; these are the lessons I value and the ones I need to move forward in education.

“It is nearly impossible to think about international relations without a multiple perspective or thinking that is interdisciplinary. International relations requires some background in history, economics, language, politics and cultural studies. Without an interdisciplinary approach my studies would be incomplete.”

Mesquita hopes to return to Kazakhstan or a different location in the same region upon the completion of his studies in Scotland. He is considering a career working with one of the small non-governmental agencies in the area or a larger organization such as USAID (United States Agency for International Development) or Amnesty International.

“A history major develops high levels of literacy and critical-thinking abilities, which are skills necessary for any career,” Toth said. “Mike can serve as an important example to our students; his desire to learn more about the world began here at the West campus, which led him to the Peace Corps and Kazakhstan, and now soon to Scotland.

“From there, who knows? I’m certain that it will be interesting and that he will draw on those skills to be an effective policy analyst and adviser.”