By Ted Meinhover (B.A. ’07)
An alumnus credits global studies for his wanderlust and commitment to social justice
I stepped off the small plane and into the thick air of Banda Aceh, on the northern tip of the Indonesian archipelago. The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 had devastated the city five months earlier, and the memorandum of understanding between the Indonesian government and the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) that ended the province’s 30-year civil war had not yet been formalized.
An intern at an international human rights organization in Bangkok, I was joining a meeting of community leaders and peace activists to work toward that long-desired peace. Hurrying nervously past the machine gun-wielding soldiers at the door, I left the military safe zone of the airport and moved into the unknown.
No precise plan had led me to the jungles and mountains of that island, but experiences, decisions, and events beyond my control had colluded to make me feel, for the first time, that I wanted to play a role in events of great consequence, to participate in something meaningful.
From an idyllic youth in rural Minnesota to student life at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, I always loved the cold winters and perfect springs of the Midwest, and a piece of my soul will always reside in them. Occasional ghost pains, the memory of nerves on the end of my nose, evoke February bike rides across the frozen Mississippi to a global studies class on the west bank. At the University, the scope of my vision exploded outwards, from rural to urban to transnational, as classmates and books and professors taught me about the religions, histories, languages, arts, politics, great deeds, and injustices of the world. They set my intellectual self on a journey both wonderful and traumatic, encouraging me to question the known and luring me to the challenge of the unknown.
The University of Minnesota opened a door and pushed me beyond my physical and intellectual comfort zones. Global studies and the University of Minnesota provided opportunities to discover and pursue my passions. Inspired by the wisdom and encouragement of my mentors, from Barbara Frey to Daniel Kelliher, I went beyond the classroom, exploring the diversity within the University and abroad.
In 2004 I was chosen to participate in the International Reciprocal Student Exchange Program, and I spent the next year at Universitas Sains Malaysia on the island of Penang, in the fabled Malacca Straits. Perhaps the only Minnesotan on the formerly British colonial island, I acquired lifelong friends, a new language, a penchant for the notorious sambal chili sauce, and a new appreciation for the limitless possibilities of the world.
At the end of my year in Malaysia, the U of M again opened a door. The Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellowship at the University’s Human Rights Center sent me north of Penang to Bangkok, Thailand, for an internship at the Asian Forum for Human Rights. Before that summer, my understanding of social justice and the concept of an international civil society was purely intellectual. Those steaming Thai months—punctuated by Buddhist festivals, tropical downpours, and the best cuisine on the planet—taught me the realities, both wonderful and frustrating, of that field. During this internship, I found myself standing amid the rubble of Banda Aceh’s beachside neighborhoods, staring out at the now calm ocean. I had joined a meeting of local and international civil society groups that were organizing a campaign for peace in the province of Aceh, after 30 years of civil war—now a possibility, ironically, because of the disaster.
Returning to the University of Minnesota in the fall, I continued to accumulate knowledge and skills. Classes in politics, international law, journalism, and, perhaps above all, language, gave me tools with which to construct my career. Another door opened, and I applied for and was awarded the Katherine E. Sullivan Scholarship to spend a fifth year of undergraduate studies abroad, this time in Indonesia and southwestern China. I spent the fall semester at Universitas Indonesia, continuing my study of Bahasa, the language of Malaysia and Indonesia. That spring I crossed the oceans, mountains, and cities of Southeast Asia to study Mandarin Chinese at Yunnan University in Kunming, a city of over 4 million people that I had never heard of before.
In Indonesia I wrote, with local journalist Imam Cahyono, a column on the arrival of the American president, George W. Bush, in that country, a piece that was published in the national English-language daily, the Jakarta Post.
While I was at the U, I was a resident of the University of Minnesota’s Student Cooperative, across the street from the Bell Museum. My interest in cooperatives became international as I discovered a similar movement in Asia. In Indonesia I was introduced to an exciting network of academics, businessmen, politicians, activists, and students involved in cooperatives. I found myself discussing the issues of poverty and microloans, in Bahasa Indonesia, on bamboo mats in the small villages of Banyumas in Central Java, and sharing strong coffee with former militants in Aceh, now working in cooperative coffee plantations in the mountains where they had waged a guerrilla war a few years earlier.
Now 26 years old, I am working in the District of Columbia, thanks to a colleague in Jakarta who guided me toward my job here. I am working with the international programs of the National Cooperative Business Association, an organization that applies the cooperative business model and the international cooperative principles to promote social and economic development globally. I continue to be stimulated by daily interaction with people from around the world and by this diverse city.
Nursing an expensive cup of coffee in a Washington, D.C., café and absorbing the steady murmur of the government workers, university students, lobbyists, policy institute researchers, artists, and, of course, the occasional mysterious individual in dark glasses, who all seem to gather here at the end of a workday, I am on yet another adventure, completely different yet in its own way as unanticipated and exciting as any in Southeast Asia. As before, I could hardly have anticipated being here—and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Global studies has been both blessing and curse, in the very best way. An introduction to the possibilities has etched in me an incurable, wonderful, yet torturous wanderlust and a desire to learn and understand what is not yet known. We live in a time when the greatest sins are apathy and fear of innovation, when inaction in the face of knowledge is unacceptable. As our world becomes smaller, so have the problems of our local communities become those of a global community, and vice versa. The greatest question faced by my generation is whether to recognize the challenges presented by knowledge of such a huge world, and whether to accept the benefits and burdens of global citizenship.
And, again, we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Ted Meinhover (B.A. ’07) can be reached at email@example.com. He also maintains a website, www.tedmeinhover.com.