MAIS in Action Spotlight: Alexander Hirata

“…USF was helping me grind the lens through which I view the world.”

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When I was 18, I took a gap year before my sophomore year of college. I volunteered as a 4th grade teacher on the island Yap, in the Federated States of Micronesia. I had a moving experience, and it sparked my passion for international aid and development.

I fed this desire throughout college by working as the Student Director of Missions at my university, where I sent students on volunteer assignments around the world. During my senior year, I realized I had barely bit into that field; there was far more to learn, and it was necessary for me to study it in order to participate ethically, unlike many of the aid organizations I’d witnessed doggedly pressing their own harmful agendas overseas.

I searched for a graduate program that would foster critical examination of this dubious world of international development, one that emphasized empowerment instead of trendy Western solutions. Thus, I enrolled in the Master of Arts in International Studies program at University of San Francisco, which embodied these criteria.

The MAIS program introduced me to a library of literature and theories of which I had no idea; my undergraduate degree is in creative writing, and I couldn’t believe such rich texts and meaningful concepts existed. I also learned skills I rely on regularly in my work, such as writing policy briefs and research outlines. I could not get enough.

The curriculum is well constructed, with subjects from one class complementing subjects from the others each week. We built off of challenging abstract theories: time-space distantiation, hegemony, transnationality, and more. These were difficult, but wrestling with them was worth it, as eventually I was able to link them and construct a framework of understanding, a language allowing me to enter the discourse. I realized what was happening, later: USF was helping me grind the lens through which I view the world.

My internship with Canvasback Missions allowed me to return my focus to Micronesia, and to the Marshall Islands, specifically. Making the Marshalls my cynosure provided a real-life case study for so many of the concepts I learned. Canvasback ended up sending me to the Marshall Islands as part of my internship, and that on-the-ground experience provided me with a tangible counterbalance to my readings.

I recommend new students pick a region or issue of focus as soon as possible. Having that grounding will allow you to draw even more out of your studies with the MAIS program, to immediately employ your schooling.

Writing my thesis was the most rewarding — and stressful! — part of my experience. It was fulfilling to pull and apply theories from all of the classes I’d taken and to realize how much I’d managed to learn in just one year of coursework. In my thesis, I trace the contentious history of US colonialism in the Marshall Islands and its impact on the health of the Marshallese migrant population in Springdale, Arkansas.

“This program was critical in my personal and professional development, and I can’t imagine approaching my work without it.”

Figuring out how to do onsite research with no framework or guide was a thrilling challenge. I flew to Arkansas with only a single meeting scheduled, yet somehow ended up “breaking in” to the Marshallese community and getting access to everyone I needed for interviews. By the end of my stay, I had attended churches, funerals, and birthday parties, and I was trusted by families to ferry their children around the city.

In addition to the depth of learning my research yielded (so much more than I could fit into a tiny thesis), I found the groundwork and networking from the process has been fruitful. I continue to rely on my contacts for advice and guidance in my work, and I’ve even started to advise health workers in other Micronesian communities in the US.

Looking back, it’s clear the projects I’ve launched for Canvasback all stem from what I learned in the MAIS program. My “See the Beauty” campaign aimed to set the organization apart from the often-exploitative language and images used by other aid organizations to present the communities they work with and to raise money. We continue to be critical and ethical in how we represent Micronesia by eschewing otherizing and disempowering verbiage.

Last summer, I returned a second time to Majuro, Marshall Islands to lead a small research team in community-based participatory research. We ended up with a trove of health data that hadn’t existed before. We hope to use this to secure funding and hone our programs into what is truly effective for and desired by the island.

Just last weekend, I attended a celebration with the Sacramento Marshallese community, which invited us to return and run health programs. And in June, I’ll be presenting on my work and research at the 2016 Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Health Summit in California.

I am a proud to have been part of MAIS, and I now work as Director of Research for Canvasback Missions, Inc. This program was critical in my personal and professional development, and I can’t imagine approaching my work without it.

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