Why I study International Relations – an interview with LIRA’s President, Lani Dumas

Rabelais’ Chief Editors, Leah and Lewis, sat down with Lani to ask him about why he studies International Relations as part of the Love Letters to our Higher Education series here at Rabelais.

Q: To start off nice and easy, tell me a bit about yourself and what you study, Lani.

I started studying a Bachelor of International Relations in 2019. It wasn’t initially anywhere on my radar, there was a whole range of fields I considered before luckily coming across IR. I was genuinely considering a double degree in bio/ law, film, criminology, scriptwriting, anthropology. However, IR caught my eye, it married elements of law, politics, and culture and most importantly it offered travel!!

If you want a deeper understanding of the degree, I will say it’s quite a diverse one. These days I don’t think professionals stick to one thing. You could become a lawyer, academic, politician, journo, military officer, diplomat, development aid worker, some corporate shmuck even. You can choose to focus on economics and trade, anthropology and history, politics, law, conflict, IR theory, development, language, communications… at least that’s how it’s been before COVID-19 and the cuts to humanities.

Q: Studying IR, what are your goals and aspirations post-graduation?

When I first started at La Trobe, I imagined myself working corporate, doing trade, and maybe even steering companies the right way somehow. As my studies have progressed, however, I’ve been able to refine my vision. I’ve taken the subjects which provide the essential skeletal structure of any IR degree, I also saturated my studies with everything Asia, however in my third year I’ve taken a keener interest in ethnic and indigenous affairs. Post-graduation, a couple of years without study are deserved, perhaps I’ll spend them travelling and then doing internships in Australia. The two masters I’m looking at are either in Conflict and Counter-Terrorism, or Development Studies (but won’t be remaining at La Trobe). I’d love to simultaneously work and travel around Asia but that all depends on what kind of contracts are available, ultimately spending my career helping communities with a real “boots on the ground” experience will be most important.

Q: Do you feel that studying IR at La Trobe has equipped you for a job?

I’ve been lucky enough to start before COVID-19 so yeah, I believe so. Maybe it comes down to a fixation on what I was going to do by the end of my chapter at La Trobe though. What the degree enabled me to do was look at what opportunities were out there and tailor my subjects according to what may be most useful. Learning a language, becoming familiar with law and foundational IR theory, constantly refreshing my understanding of national histories and international events which all interlink and form an understanding of how “we” all got here, development studies have been good for equipping me with the desired skills. Studying at La Trobe I’ve also been able to discover extra-curricular things which add to that personal development. In short, I would say yes, I do feel equipped to handle a job, but I think being able to operate as a professional does require a personal touch.

One issue I might mention is that many students I’ve met don’t feel prepared, or that they have any idea of professional or career information which might aid them in knowing what to do when the time comes.

Q: Studying politics on an international scale, I imagine, takes a keen interest in policy and relative conceptions of justice. How do you think studying International Relations has impacted you as a person?

In a word… Tremendously. I come from two “against the grain” parents, they are both independent sort of rebels in contrast to the worlds that they came from. I was raised with progressive roots and a mix of French and Māori cultures, so I’ve been fortunate to be educated in different ways. However, the understanding which my degree has provided on the historical unfolding’s which have moulded this world have really changed my worldview. IR has changed even what I became interested in. One significant impact on my personal beliefs came from Theories of World Politics when it was taught by Lianne Hartnett, we learnt all the theories of IR but two stood out. Constructivism and Critical Theory were two theories which completely ripped apart my conception of reality, it forced me to interrogate social constructs and sources of power, and it made me a better thinker for it.

Q: Online learning has obviously been quite the shift for many people, and few would disagree when I say the quality and quantity of subjects has decreased compared to pre-pandemic levels. Talk to me about your experience with the quality of education at La Trobe – what has changed since first year and does it live up to your expectations?

It’s removed that grandiose experience of being able to sit in lecture theatres and have the lecturers voice fill the space around you. Just to feel like you are a part of something, and the opportunity to experience all those social factors of being surrounded by peers. I think working in this screen to student dynamic is somewhat jarring sometimes. The online space has meant that education has lost some essential quality, especially being that I’ve personally missed group projects and workshop interactions which would have really enriched my education further. Some classes don’t bother to replace lectures from previous years, there can be missing content. Worst of all is the number of blogs we must do, just stacked onto each other as if the more we write the better our equipment for the professional sphere. People don’t even bother to interact half the time and it is quite obviously isolating.

Q: I’ve heard that IR is being rebranded to Global Studies. Why do you believe the change has been prompted, what are your thoughts on it, and what does it mean for future students?

I think the biggest issue is that the strength of IR is its flexibility. It allows students to explore their options from everywhere before deciding what to settle on. If you read my academic journey, I think that’s certainly the case, and a phenomenon you will see in lots of IR students. What’s worrying about these changes is that; Being able to choose from such an array means that many subjects complement each other, people who want a major to choose specific tangents of learning while others have broad choices available to them.

Q: I know that the politics department has suffered subject and staff losses and I am interested in seeing where gaps in education have been created as a result. What is your opinion on the recent staff cuts and do you believe that it has impacted your IR studies?

La Trobe University has an impressive track record for the experts in the political departments taught here. International Relations was top tier. Personally, I chose to remain at La Trobe because of the expertise of the faculty, they all demonstrated such a rich level of understanding for what they taught and are all active professionals. They are also all very helpful, and sensitive educators. Despite the flack that LTU gets, I chose to remain because I felt the education was not missing. However, with COVID-19 the cuts are very noticeable, they have limited our degree flexibility and the absence of subjects like “War & Peace: Introduction to Conflict Resolution” which could really reinforce our skills and expertise has left students feeling genuinely disadvantaged.

(Special mention to Ben Habib, Bec Starting, Ian Woolford, Lianne Hartnett, Emily Foley, Brooke Wilmsen, Dirk Tomsa, James Leibold, Michael O’Keefe, Jasmine Westendorf) – Just saying the lecturers I liked.

Q: You are this year’s President of La Trobe International Relations Association, why did you choose to get involved with LIRA?

I chose to get involved in LIRA because the club was dying. In my first year, it was barely active. I wanted to give IR students something more to their uni experience, that I had missed. Starting the club has given me the opportunity to make good networks, learn how to organize, and improve my own skills. We’ve been able to revamp the club, write news, articles, run educational and social events, we’ve grown the community and hoping to continue that. I think as a club, the more people who partake, the more students have the power to provide extra steppingstones to our education.

Q: Anything else you want to say about your degree or a message for students considering IR/Global Studies?

Advice:

  • It pays to figure out what you want to do and tailor your degree accordingly.
  • Get involved in opportunities available to you.
  • If you want to get good engross yourself in what you study, be a true enthusiast about IR.

Image: “envelope” by saxarocks is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0