Alumni Dispatch: John Hutcheson ('03)
I was fortunate to be in graduate school at a pivotal time in American history. Through a special Air Force program, I was allowed to leave my normal duties as a Public Affairs Officer for 18 months to pursue a master’s degree in Communication. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and 2003 invasion of Iraq formed the bookends of my UW graduate experience, and everything that happened in between has helped shape my experiences over the last six years.
I remember being thankful and still am today to have been in the kind of learning environment that UW offered during that critical period. The chance to exchange ideas and viewpoints that covered the entire spectrum of people from diverse backgrounds was priceless. The value of spending that tumultuous time with a cohort of really smart grad students and faculty was not in being told exactly what to think about these events; the payoff instead was figuring out how to think about them critically and in a way that challenged me to account for perspectives other than my own.
In the years after leaving the University of Washington, I have tried to retain this sense of open-mindedness and willingness to think critically about the world around me. Since graduating, I have served as a communicator at the Pentagon, in Iraq, in Okinawa, Japan, and currently I am deployed for six months to the southern Philippines as the PAO for the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force here.
Each of these environments has presented unique communication challenges, in terms of cultural, political and media dynamics. Imagine trying to convey to Okinawan journalists and politicians that the U.S. military is there to defend Japan and to serve as a stabilizing force in the region while they make it clear that they care more about a quiet peaceful existence than being part of their government’s national security agenda. Picture having to earnestly explain to a Filipino reporter in Mindanao that U.S. forces are not in fact searching for Yamashita’s gold (Google it) but are primarily interested in helping the Philippine military eliminate common enemies such as the Jemaah Islamiya terrorist group. For reasons of history, culture and politics, these are not debates that can be wrapped up easily or quickly. But at least I felt prepared to have them in a rational, deliberate manner and with an understanding that reasonable people with access to the same information sometimes arrive at vastly different conclusions about the state of the world.
Did my UW graduate education prepare me for every challenge I have faced over the last six years? No, but I shudder to think of how I would have navigated some of the communication minefields I have faced without the conceptual foundation I gained from my time in Seattle. In six weeks, my Philippine deployment comes to an end, and it’s back to Okinawa for another year, followed by who knows where. One thing I am certain of, however, is that no matter where I go, my UW experience will be with me, helping me make sense of the world.