Two Degrees, Two Schools, One Year: Mason and Malta

Posted: March 7, 2014 at 5:01 am, Last Updated: March 10, 2014 at 12:14 pm

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By Buzz McClain

students in Malta


The Mason 2012-13 cohort in Malta. Photo courtesy of Julie Shedd

The 400-year-old campus of the University of Malta sits on an island in the Mediterranean Sea, about 60 miles south of the Italian island of Sicily in the ancient sun-bathed harbor town of Valletta. The school and the town are a combination of the ancient and the contemporary, dueling reflections of the island’s age-old African and European heritages.

Malta has a long history of hosting peace conferences and international negotiations, and its prime location generates visitors and contacts from North Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and Eastern and Western Europe.

Some 5,000 miles away, in Arlington, Va., George Mason University’s 30-year-old School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (S-CAR) is headquartered in a modern high rise near the Potomac River. You can see the famous landmark memorials of Washington, D.C., just a few miles away, from the windows.

What the two schools have in common are students. For the last four years, Malta and Mason have offered parallel degree programs that simultaneously satisfy the requirements for a Master of Science in Conflict Analysis and Resolution — the George Mason degree — and a Master of Arts in Conflict Resolution and Mediterranean Security — Malta’s degree.

The dual degree program is short and intense, and while Arlington is a vibrant urban setting near the nation’s capital, the students have no problem taking all of their classes for a year on a Mediterranean island.

“The campus and living arrangements are definitely an adventure,” says John Daniel Bales, MS ’13, who took his wife and two young children with him to Malta for the year of study in 2012.

“Students won’t have access to residential services as is usual in most U.S. universities, but they do have the opportunity to choose a flat [apartment] that works well for them,” he says. “A student could share a flat near the sea with other students, or rent a small studio apartment steps away from campus.” Negotiating with the owner “is kind of fun,” he says. “It’s fairly painless if you go with the flow.”

And going with the flow means acclimating to the new surroundings and accepting the differences between there and home. “The best advice I could give regarding immediate differences is this: Let your preconceptions go, and fully embrace a new and vibrant culture,” he says.

Nicholas Van Woert, also in the 2013 class, was accustomed to island life — he lives on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina — but “there was a bit of a culture shock walking the streets and taking in what was around you, but for the actual classes, I couldn’t tell I was in another country.”

“Graduate education in Malta is similar to U.S. programs with a few salient distinctions,” adds Bales. “The European lecture style is quite professor centric, but not in a negative way. Students still have the opportunity to participate in class discussions and working groups, but professors take their role as course director seriously. Unlike U.S. courses where graduate students often take the lead in group discussions, this is usually not the case in the European modules.”

“The program in Malta gives to S-CAR a small but significant footprint in the Mediterranean arena, always a crossroads and once again a cockpit of world affairs,” says S-CAR dean Kevin Avruch. The program also “signifies our own—and Mason’s—commitment to be a university in and for the world.”

Each course is taught in two-week modules, with an occasional one-week course; the program is often more affordable than a degree at home, as well as being more compact.

“Course work goes by in a flash,” Bales says. “And if you aren’t particularly enthralled with a specific topic, the next module is just days away. Most students, however, wish they had more time with every course, as each section is dynamic and brings new challenges.”

“[The year] was such a great experience,” says Van Woert. Not only did he earn two graduate-level degrees in a single year, but he also gained a worldliness he finds hard to describe.

“Between the different perspectives you get from your fellow students — as well as the teachers — coming from a diverse background of field experience and professional experience, it’s hard to explain. It’s just a wonderful experience that opens your view to the rest of the world.”

In his class, Van Woert says, nine countries were represented among 19 students. He thought a study-abroad trip to Rome as an undergraduate at Winthrop University prepared him for the global aspects of the program, but he was still uncertain about some things.

“I didn’t know what to wear, but I knew Europeans dress a little nicer so I went upscale a bit,” he says. “I avoided the baggy American style. And as for the food, I didn’t know what to expect, but Malta has a blend of everything in the area. There’s a big Italian influence, a Greek influence, an African influence. Rabbit is popular, so that was different but delicious.”

Here’s a video of testimonials during a degree presentation ceremony.

Write to Buzz McClain at bmcclai2@gmu.edu

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