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Alumni Spotlight with Dr. Jackson Ewing

Posted by: wichmannkm | March 29, 2016 | No Comment |

Jackson Ewing

Jackson Ewing graduated from the College of Charleston as a political science major in 2003. He earned his Master’s degree and Ph.D. in International Relations at Bond University in Australia. Dr. Ewing specializes in environmental policy and is currently the Director of Asian Sustainability for the Asia Society Policy Institute, a Fellow for the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, and a Senior Analyst for Wikistrat. Our department had the fortunate opportunity to learn more about Dr. Ewing’s successful career.

What led you to pursue your graduate degrees in international studies at Bond University in Australia?
From my time in the political science department at CofC, I knew that I was most interested in the way international systems work. I was really drawn to international relations through some of the courses I had at CofC so it made the sense for my career that if I wanted to work in academia, think tanks or for the U.S. Government, I needed to pursue a graduate degree in international relations. I wanted to complete my degree abroad for a couple of reasons. On a personal level, I wanted to get out of the country and experience life internationally. On a professional level, I thought it would expose me to different sorts of people, educators, and cultures that I wouldn’t experience if I stayed in the U.S. I looked around the English speaking world, and Australia had great weather, an appealing culture, and was proximate to Asia and to the Asia Pacific – where so many interesting things were happening. I didn’t think when I left for Australia in 2005 that I would be abroad until 2014! I envisioned being away for a little over a year, and as I was wrapping up my Master’s degree and looking forward to heading back to the United States I had an opportunity to stay at Bond University to teach and work toward a Ph.D. The teaching opportunity was exciting and the prospective Ph.D. daunting. It was a tough call, but I’m glad I chose to stay. My years in Australia as a Ph.D. candidate and teacher really helped me grow as a thinker, writer and educator, and strengthened the bond I still have with that part of the world.

What was the research focus for your Ph.D.?
My Ph.D. is in a subfield of international relations called environmental security, which explores the ways in which competition over the control of natural resources and the presence of environmental stresses can fuel conflicts. I worked on this theoretically and practically. The practical part was spending a year in the Philippines studying the ongoing conflict between the Philippine government and separatist forces in the southern part of that country. I did a historical review of the root causes of the conflict and argued that an often overlooked driver was the desire by all conflicting parties to profit from the area’s resources. The environmental destruction that was taking place as those resources were developed also reduced opportunities for local citizens and added to their grievances.

You’ve taught a variety of courses on global resource trends, Asian economic development, and political economy to name a few. What have you learned from teaching others about these topics?
While in Australia as a junior level faculty member, I was often not in a position to call all my own shots. I was tasked with teaching introductory international relations courses but also to occasionally contribute in areas that were outside of my immediate expertise. This proved really valuable because it gave me a pathway for developing the expertise and overall understanding of a variety of issues. When you pursue a Ph.D. you can become a bit insulated in your singular field, so it helped having classroom experiences to draw me out of my own little world.

What successes and challenges did you face as the Head of the Environment, Climate Change, and Food Security Program for RSIS in Singapore?
I came to that position through a visiting fellowship that I had with RSIS in Singapore while I was still working on my Ph.D. The fellowship helped me to meet people in Singapore, and I ultimately wrote a paper which the institution published. These experiences helped me get a foot in the door, and after completing my Ph.D. I applied and was chosen as a MacArthur Foundation Fellow and Head of the Environment, Climate Change, and Food Security Program. The big shift for me was to work in a much more policy-oriented institution. I was really in the classic ‘ivory tower’ in Australia, focusing on educating students and producing publications. In Singapore, our objectives were different; we were attempting to influence regional policies. I began to work directly with policy practitioners at places like the Asian Development Bank, a myriad of UN organizations, and other think tanks primarily through SE Asia, China, India, and Bangladesh. I had to fairly quickly get past some of my own naiveté of how policy is made, how the interests of various stakeholders often don’t align, and how to help these stakeholders work together and find solutions. I got something of a baptism by fire and was thrown right into the mix which was both difficult and formative. It was rewarding to work on issues that at times had real impacts. For instance, we helped to develop new water sharing strategies between Singapore and Malaysia, influenced Singaporean legislation to address transboundary haze pollution from nearby land-clearing fires, and built a coalition of think tanks throughout the Asia-Pacific to share resources and expertise.

You currently work as the Director of Asian Sustainability for the Asia Society Policy Institute. Can you talk a little about what you do there?
The Asia Society Policy Institute is a relatively new wing of the wider Asia Society, which was founded by John D. Rockefeller III in 1956 to build bridges between the US and Asian countries. The Policy Institute is headed by the former Prime Minister of Australia Kevin Rudd, and his role helps us convene global leaders at a high level, and host public facing initiatives that garner attention internationally. Beneath all of this is where the project work actually happens. My role is to determine specific areas in which sustainability policy and practice in the Asia Pacific can be improved, design projects, and develop partnerships to achieve a specific set of goals. Right now we’re working in Northeast Asia to enhance the design and function of carbon markets in China, Japan, and South Korea. These carbon markets are designed to help reduce climate change causing emissions, and we hope to help countries develop their markets in concert rather than independently. We are also involved in advancing the global water and sanitation agenda. The global community has recently agreed to a series of Sustainable Development Goals and one of them is ensuring clean water and sanitation provisions to people around the world. We are contributing to making this goal a reality in targeted Asian countries. These are the types of projects we are in the business of promoting. We try to take a pragmatic focus and call ourselves a “think and do tank.” It’s an inelegant phrase but an accurate one, and we measure our work by its tangible impacts.

That has to be rewarding.
It’s rewarding but it’s also challenging in the sense that it can be difficult to determine your progress as you go along. A lot of these projects take a fairly long view. It will likely take years to see if our carbon market objectives are met. Water challenges are so formidable that the global community targets 2030 as the point by which we hope to achieve our new standards. Sometimes I have to remind myself that outcomes will be longer in coming than I would prefer, and focus on the incremental progress we are making.

How do you think your political science degree prepared you for graduate work and career?
I promote my CofC political science experience at every opportunity, and I took away a number of things outside of the content of the degree. I learned about the process of learning and education, and had a chance to see how really effective professors operate. I have since tried to take plenty of pages from their books when I teach. The small class sizes allowed for in-depth and personalized instruction and that I have likewise tried to incorporate as a university educator. The ability of professors to synthesize and deliver information in ways that galvanizes enthusiasm made me look forward to my political science classes, and has offered lessons not only in the classroom but in general life.

What hobbies do you enjoy outside of work?
I’m really into the outdoors and sports. Now that I am living in the northeast, I’m back into snowboarding and my wife and I like hiking. I also read widely outside of work, and try to read fiction every night before going to sleep – English was actually my minor at CofC. I’m also a hobbyist photographer, and opportunities to travel through my career have helped me take some pictures that I enjoy.

What advice do you have for career success?
I would say it is definitely important to think strategically about your career future. At times I likely didn’t think enough about my entry into the job market when I was an undergraduate. It ultimately worked out and I’m doing what I set out to do but I had some good fortune along the way. With that said, there is more to a liberal arts education than what kind of job you are going to have afterwards. Some of the most valuable things I took from my degree concern the process of acquiring knowledge and thinking about issues that impact all of our lives. That’s true in political science especially. Exploring how the societies around the world function, make decisions, and face challenges is to me fundamentally valuable as an individual. I hope that students take advantage of such explorations for their own intrinsic merits and not just for the career they might help them to have.


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