Giving Students the World Via USD's International Relations Graduate Program

Giving Students the World Via USD's International Relations Graduate Program

The Saudi Arabia-Iranian power struggle and its effect on Yemen. ISIS luring America's youth. Examining a post-Kemalist era for Turkish Politics. Building an international anti-trafficking regime. A look at violence in El Salvador and the effects of gangs and anti-gang legislation. Understanding the security paradigm on the 38th Parallel and examining the role of U.S. foreign policy on the Korean Peninsula. Testing the economic Kuznets Curve and getting a closer look at Mexico after 20 years of NAFTA. Bolivia's resource nationalism and neosocialism and its growth and success.

MA International Relations

Each of these carefully researched and intriguing discussion topics above comprised the individual capstone projects done by eight Spring 2017 students in the University of San Diego's Master of Arts in International Relations (MAIR) program. They studied and created their work and presented their findings last month prior to participating in the May 27 USD Graduate Schools Commencement.

Along with another eight students who completed capstone projects and requirements by Jan. 31, 2017, the MAIR program again demonstrated why it remains a vitally important graduate program within the College of Arts and Sciences. The MAIR program “offers student the chance to deepen their understanding of world politics while developing the necessary skills to advance their careers,” the description on the website denotes.

History of MAIR Program

The breadth of the research topics this spring shows the depth of current world politics inquiry and an understanding why MAIR was established in the early 1970s at USD.

David Shirk, MAIR program director and a professor in both USD's Department of Political Science and International Relations and MAIR, has long seen its value. When he became its director in 2015, he examined the program’s history. It is among the earliest graduate study programs offered within a few years after the 1972 merger between the San Diego College for Women and San Diego College for Men to form the University of San Diego.

“To me, what this program represents in some ways is a recognition of the University of San Diego being on a pivotal axis; we have a global south and global north and a Pacific Rim where East meets West. That, to me, is what San Diego is all about," he said. "The founders of our department recognized this was an extremely pivotal, strategic location for looking at international affairs.”

Being a university located near the Mexico border is a natural way of being aware of and intrigued by the international relations concept. Shirk has been focused on the U.S.-Mexico border and its multitude of issues as a graduate student at UC San Diego, as the former director of USD's Trans-Border Institute and on Mexico's legal system through his extensive work through the Justice in Mexico Project.

Students Learn from Faculty Experts

But Shirk's expertise is the norm among all MAIR faculty members. Other MAIR faculty members are: Undergraduate Political Science and International Relations Professor and Department Chair Vidya Nadkarni (Russia and South Asia); Lee Ann Otto (China, Japan and East Asia); European political experts, particularly French and German politics, are Randy Willoughby and Michael Pfau. Willoughby examines security issues worldwide and Pfau does methods courses; Shirk and Emily Edmonds-Poli (Latin America); Avi Spiegel (Middle East); and Mike Williams (South Africa).

"We have an incredibly strong department for area knowledge and we literally cover the globe in terms of the breadth of knowledge we have, which I believe is unusual as a political science department at a small liberal arts college," Shirk said. "We're well-positioned to have an international relations program and to cover our bases."

Faculty expertise has far-reaching effects, too, for MAIR students. It provides access to international relations experts who come to campus as guest speakers and instructors. Recent guests include a former U.S. Attorney, a member of the District Attorney's office and officials from the Monterey Naval War College. Being in San Diego has given the program access to military officials from the Navy and the National Defense Intelligence College, and when studying the drug war in Mexico, active agents have been among those who speak to the class.

"A lot of great elements come together in our program," Shirk said.

Key Elements for MAIR Success

Three important elements for students interested in applying for the MAIR program are its flexibility with enrollment and curriculum; small class sizes; and the truest form of international learning — on-the-ground studying abroad.

MAIR has a flexible system for completing the program. Enrollment happens on a year-round schedule, meaning new students come in each semester. It is possible to graduate in 12-16 months as students only need 30 units to complete the degree, something that can be extremely beneficial to a prospective military-connected student. The curriculum's flexibility shows in that there are only four core classes (12 units), which leaves students 18 elective units from a diverse curriculum. There’s an opportunity to take up to six units of graduate courses at USD's other schools on campus such as law, business, and peace and justice studies.

Small class sizes are the norm in MAIR classes. "I know there are east coast programs where classes have 80-100 students, but we typically have 12-18 in a class and sometimes only five or six. The level of intimacy in our program is high. Here I’m the graduate director, I'm on the admissions committee so I talk to every incoming student and I'm the graduate advisor for every student, so there's an incredible level of attention paid to each student," Shirk said.

And, of course, the international emphasis of the program. Faculty expertise in their respective area gives students a valuable resource. “Randy (Willoughby) has taken students to NATO meetings. Emily (Edmonds-Poli) and I are actively engaged in the countries we study, Mike (Williams) looks at rural development issues in South Africa while working in a village there. We're all active scholars. We practice what we teach."

Value of MAIR Study Abroad Programs

But when the MAIR program wanted to enhance the experience and to be a more competitive option for potential students, one of the biggest additions was study abroad and international-focused education experiences. It can be hard to get on-the-ground experience in a one-to-two-year graduate program because there's very little time, Shirk said, but the MAIR program has been able to make it work.

Trips range from 10 days to three weeks and full credit is given. Working in conjunction with USD's International Center, classes are typically offered during USD's Intersession in January or when the university is on break. Student trips lately have been to Japan, Morocco, France, Belgium, Mexico, China, Cambodia and Cuba.

"At this point, nearly all of our students who are graduating have gone through at least one of these international experiences. It's not required, but we actively encourage it," Shirk said.

Two trips have been to destinations in the United States — Washington D.C. and the Naval War College in Monterey, Calif., — but they’ve been up-close opportunities to study U.S. foreign policy issues.

In all, study abroad and trips away from San Diego is also meant to be a catalyst for MAIR students when thinking about their future career steps.

“Our students came away from that trip to D.C. saying ‘I need to get out of San Diego.’ We want to break the mentality of our students' desire to stay in San Diego. They need to break out of what they know and see what life is like living somewhere else. Of the 12 students who went to D.C., at least a third of them are there now or are actively looking for work there."

It's another sign that USD’s MAIR program is a model for successfully developing and graduating Changemakers who can truly take their knowledge and experiences and seek to make a difference that can create a better world.

— Ryan T. Blystone

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