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Front-row seat to the world’s political theater

Robert English, the new director of USC’s School of International Relations, has tales to tell about his overseas exploits. (Photo/Dietmar Quistorf)

There’s no learning experience quite like getting out of the classroom — especially when the focus is on global politics. For Robert English, director of USC’s School of International Relations, embracing that type of learning one day found himself riding in an armored personnel carrier, stolen from the Soviet Union and carrying a group of militia men from Armenia.

The group was heading into the mountains on the Azerbaijani border during a period of violent ethnic cleansing, and something was rattling in a box in the middle of the vehicle. When the din became irritating enough, English asked what was causing it.

“A guy with a Kalashnikov [rifle] opens it, and inside is a hand grenade banging around,” English said. “I asked, ‘Isn’t that dangerous?’ And they said, ‘Not if the pin is in it.’… That scared me more than all the guns and bandoliers.”

English, professor of international relations with a background in Sovietology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, spent several years in Russia while conducting research for his PhD. He arrived there in the late 1980s, just as perestroika was beginning to produce sweeping reforms — all the more reason for him to tag along with his wife, a journalist working for Time and Newsweek.

“When she was interviewing some armed group or a president, why was I going to sit in the archives? No way,” he said.

English has shared that zest for international affairs with his students for 10 years, and he hopes to inspire more of it as director of the School of International Relations, a popular destination for USC students.

At any given time, according to English, there are about 800 majors in the USC Dornsife department, which offers the International Relations in Global Business degree, a joint undergraduate major with the USC Marshall School of Business, and Problems Without Passports, which gives students the opportunity to study global affairs in various corners of the world.

This past summer, English and Steven Lamy, USC Dornsife’s vice dean of academic programs and creator of the Passports program, took students to the Arctic Circle. After meeting with diplomats, scientists and indigenous peoples, the students wrote up policy briefs based on what they learned.

“The school’s in good shape, and we’re going to make it better,” English said.

The School of International Relations is adding the “Director’s Series on Theory and Practice,” a speaker’s series featuring accomplished professionals who will speak about their work. The lectures will be open to undergraduates and graduate students, part of a new emphasis on mentorship that helps undergrads prepare for life after college.

The school is also fostering more partnerships, such as one with the environmental studies program. “We have more and more students interested in both fields, so it makes sense,” said English, who noted that classes on climate change and global public health have generated a lot of buzz.

The school’s ultimate aim is inspiring students to study the changing world.

English’s own inspiration led him to witness the unexpected thaw of the Cold War just as the Soviet Union was fracturing. Stories pour out of him — of tanks in the streets of Moscow as party hardliners staged a final coup to preserve the country; of meetings with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, about whom English is writing a biography; and watching as the first free elections were held in Georgia and Armenia.

Being there, he said, taught him how to talk about these events with passion and verisimilitude.

“It just wasn’t the same if you weren’t there or didn’t experience some of it,” English said. “It helps not to have just read about it from books. To see how people behaved in a crisis and what really motivated them — that cures you for life from any simple explanations.”

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