On September 11, 2001, Matthew Mayeshiba was a freshman planning to study viola at the University of Minnesota. He added a political science major to his studies, partly to gain context for the tumultuous years that followed 9/11 — the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the presidential election of 2004.
But by 2005, "there seemed to be so many more important things in the world than music, and the academic focus of my political science work did not fit the bill," says Mayeshiba, who enrolled part-time in the La Follette School's Master of International Public Affairs program in fall 2012.
He left the U and worked for Target for a year to get his bearings then joined the Air Force in early 2006. For four years he served as a Chinese language analyst and rose to the rank of staff sergeant.
Mayeshiba spent the first two years of his service learning Mandarin Chinese from the ground up at the Defense Language Institute–Foreign Language Center in Monterey, California. "Academically speaking, this training was probably the hardest thing I have ever done, involving 63 grueling weeks of vocabulary and grammar drilling that ended up washing out over half of our class," he says. "In the end though, the training prepared me for work translating a wide variety of Chinese written and spoken materials into English."
He spent the last two years of his service at Fort Meade in Maryland, where he used his Chinese skills to reporting on events for a variety of customers who, not infrequently, included the president of the United States. "At Fort Meade, I got to see firsthand that a person in the right place with the right skills can have a profound impact on the world," Mayeshiba says.
Mayeshiba returned to the University of Minnesota and finished his degrees in music and political science in 2010. He and his wife moved to Madison so she could attend the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Mayeshiba attends La Follette part time because his primary responsibility is parenting their 5-year-old.
He ultimately hopes to work for the federal government. "My experience in the military had a profound impact on my choice of careers," says Mayeshiba. "During my time as a student at Minnesota, I had worked for local non-profits, political campaigns and the legislature, but I had never really come across a line of work that was at once small enough to be concerned with finding real solutions and large enough to ask the big questions. In the military, I worked with a group of people dedicated to finding the truth of a situation and willing to put that knowledge to use in helping our nation solve important questions."
"As a father I realize that a wide variety of issues such as internet governance, nuclear weapons, climate change and many others are all going to require global solutions that benefit everyone," Mayeshiba says. "My exposure to these issues in the military context convinced me that I needed to lend both my voice and my mind to the search for solutions, while at the same time underlining the fact that I will need to master certain skills to make my voice credible."
Security issues may end up as the focus of Mayeshiba's studies, but he appreciates that studying public affairs will give him a broad knowledge base. "For this reason, I am really glad for all of the analytical skills courses offered at La Follette," he says. "Already I am beginning to feel that even if I'm not currently an expert on a topic, I at least know how to become one — and of course, there is no better way to learn about the strengths and pitfalls of economic modeling or statistical analysis than to work through a problem set."
Mayeshiba appreciates the flexibility he has when choosing his courses. "As a dad taking care of a 5-year-old, I would not be able to pursue this endeavor without the ability to tailor my class schedule to my life schedule," he says, adding that the university housing for families is ideal.
The school's small size is also a benefit. "La Follette is a small school, which means you really get to know both your teachers and your fellow students," Mayeshiba says. "The classes are small enough that it is easy to get involved in conversation during class, and people know each other well enough that these conversations often continue after class is over. The result is even though I am a part-time student with fairly tight constraints on my outside time, I feel like I really know most of my classmates in a way that I never did in my much larger undergraduate programs."