Vignette: The World by the Bay

In 1769, a Spanish exploring party led by Don Gaspar de Portola was sent north from San Diego to establish a fort and mission at Monterey Bay, which had been described 172 years earlier by a passing Spanish seafarer as a “fine harbor sheltered from all winds.” The first whites to see Northern California by land, and suffering greatly from starvation and disease, Portola’s men completely missed Monterey Bay, an open gulf. They overshot by at least 70 miles, but at last sighted the empty land and water that would be called San Francisco and its bay. They returned home thinking they had failed.

The admissions office of the Monterey Institute of International Studies is in a plain one-story adobe house from the historic Mexican period, home to the author John Steinbeck, his second wife, Gwyn, and their infant son, Thom, between November 1944 and April 1945. The Lara-Sota Adobe, he said, was “a house I have wanted since I was a little kid.” The little two-room house was shaded street-side by a massive cypress tree and stood on a quiet street a few hundred yards uphill from bay water. Steinbeck was writing his parable, The Pearl, and its screenplay, in a backyard garden shed in January 1945, when his novel Cannery Row, about colorful down-on-their-luck folk living downwind of Monterey’s sardine factories, was published.  The Steinbecks left the adobe for Mexico and the filming of The Pearl and never returned.

Today is the first day of classes of the fall semester, and the admissions staff is resting on laurels, having admitted one of the largest classes—418 students—in Monterey’s 57-year history. With a total student body of 700, 60 percent women, 40 percent men, from 38 countries and speaking 33 native languages, the average student has three years of professional experience before entrance. Amid its pride, on this quiet late-summer day with all the first-day bustle happening elsewhere on campus, the staff is still panged at the loss of its massive shading cypress, felled by snarling chainsaws only a few weeks before after being declared terminal and hazardous; it is said to have been planted over the bones of a child, an early resident in the Mexican period. Chipped and shredded, the cypress is piled in a small mountain in the center of the campus organic garden and has been distributed in all the gardens and beds, sweetening the already scented air.

The campus sits in a gentle, flower-scented, hillside-bungalow neighborhood, punctuated by cypress, cedars, palm trees, live oaks, Japanese maples, and knobcone pines. Gardens proliferate: alongside very old adobe or stone walls topped with terra cotta tiles, narrow stone or redbrick paths thread between buildings and duck below redwood pergolas, past tiny courtyards, bench nooks, planters and pots and gardens of phlox, coast buckwheat, primrose, buckthorn, thimbleberry, fruit-dangling grapevines, a multitude of flowers.

Near the center of campus, in the Samson Student Center Café, many nations’ flags hang from ceiling timber trusses, from the familiar Old Glory, and France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Russia, Egypt, the Philippines, to the less familiar Bhutan, Ghana, Senegal, Thailand, Armenia. Directional signs are pinned to the wall above the cashier station and a Coca-Cola cooler: New Delhi, 7,773 mi; Petra, 6,852 mi.; Madrid, 5,838 mi.; Cairo, 7,512 mi.; London, 5,413 mi; Paris 5,621 mi.; Mexico City, 1,818 mi. In late morning of this first day, the room swells with the sound of young peoples’ banter, a babel of languages, beneath the assembly of flags.

Find a vacant seat in class with Professor Lyuba Zarsky, Public Policy and the Environment. Thirty-four IP majors crowd into a trim, well-appointed, storefront classroom on Pacific Street in McGowan Building; outside the large plate-glass window, busy traffic whizzes by. Many of the students are freshly returned from summer internships or institutes, and from an International Professional Service Semester. Lyuba Zarsky has taught at MIIS for seven years and edited the book Human Rights and the Environment: Conflicts and Norms in a Globalizing World, which will inform this course. She has previous experience—up to 25 years in sustainable development, working with Aborigines in Australia and with an NGO’s a globalization program. She will guide them through discussions of public policy and government functions and through the process of changing norms, to influence laws governing the environment and sustainability.

This being the first class meeting, Zarsky directs students to break into pairs, interview each other about their backgrounds, and then introduce their partner to the class. For 10 minutes, 34 avid, intelligent, and confident graduate students look into the eyes of their partners and digest their lives, filling the room’s air with warm talk. Justin Wright (Middlebury ’08) turns to a classmate to report of his landscaping and carpentry work in Hawaii, Arizona, and Northern California, and how living near mountain-fast Lake Tahoe, witnessing the pressures on the environment brought to bear by wealth, power, and development, led him straight to MIIS to pursue public policy. His classmate, Rainey, has been working as a translator, most recently at the London Olympics, where the beach volleyball competition commanded much attention.

Faculty Authors’ Section—10 shelves—William Tell Coleman Library, a bright and modern, two-story facility. Pull titles at random: Green Planet Blues: Environmental Politics from Stockholm to Kyoto; Bringing Women In: Women’s Issues in International Development Programs; Terrorism and Homeland Security: Thinking Russia’s Revolution from Above, 1985-2000: Reform, Transition, and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime; Strategically about Policy; The Interpreter’s Companion; Leadership in English Language Education: Theoretical Foundations and Practical Skills for Changing Times; The Human Genome Project and Minority Communities: Ethical, Political, and Social Dilemmas; Translators’ Strategies and Creativity; American Lake: Nuclear Peril in the Pacific. Adjacent are five shelves dedicated to the life and career of General Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, the brilliant, abrasive maverick who served in the Army in China, Burma, and India before and during World War II. Nearby is a lifelike bust of the general, with his prominent ears and thin Yankee nose. Stilwell’s two daughters, who settled near the family home in Carmel, were long associated with the Monterey Institute of International Studies; Nancy Stilwell Easterbrook, born in China and a longtime trustee of MIIS, and her sister, artist Alison Stilwell Cameron, are themselves memorialized outside the Coleman Library in a flower garden with thankful plaques from the many Chinese scholarship students they supported at Monterey.

At the Holland Center, a photo exhibition overlooks tables for ping-pong and foosball. The pictures are the work of Peter Grothe—former adjunct professor and emeritus director of International Student Programs, who died in June 2012, at the age of 81. All are close-up portraits of mostly young people, an international panoply of children from a lifetime of world travels; the faces brighten a dim and temporarily empty gathering spot.

In early 1960, as adviser to Minnesota Democratic senator Hubert H. Humphrey, Peter Grothe drafted the language of a foreign-aid bill and proposed an entity he called “The Peace Corps.” Later that season, Humphrey gave the idea to the Presidential nominee, John F. Kennedy. Young Grothe wrote Kennedy’s proposing speech and later served in the first “class” of Peace Corps volunteers, assigned to Ethiopia. At Monterey for 31 years, Grothe taught cross-cultural communications and American politics, and recruited in more than 40 countries, greatly increasing international student enrollment. In the student lounge, beneath Grothe’s colorful assemblage of international amity, the pool cues rest on the tables like crossed and put-away swords, and the rows of foosball combatants are, at least for the moment, at rest.

Up behind the Holland Center, grounds super Kirk Eckhardt (who, with his build, could be a younger stand-in for the actor Nick Nolte) is tending a row of tall, stupendous flowering vines that most people would not notice unless they left the traveled way and peeked at an obscure wall, when he is startled by the sight of a wounded deer hiding in the foliage. It seems to have been injured by a car. He calls the wildlife rescue truck for the Monterey County SPCA. It glides discretely up a driveway, and the veterinarian eyeballs the deer before mixing a sedative so the deer can be rescued. Graduate students sit studying and checking e-mail in a nearby courtyard, blissfully unmindful of the little drama unfolding just a few yards away.

The McGowan Building contains the Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program, the East Asia Nonproliferation Program, and the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program. Framed decorative posters spied on the second floor: Middle East maps, informational posters on botulism toxin and the dangers of ingesting alpha emitters, and two vintage U.S. government wanted posters—offering a $5 million reward for Osama Bin Laden. It is eerily quiet. Not wishing to wait for the elevator, one takes the stairs to another floor.

One flight above, in a crowded little seminar room, Professor Jeff Langholz is holding the first meeting of Environmental Conflict Management, studying the role of environmental factors in conflicts and international security. Langholz’s research focuses on biodiversity conservation and sustainable development; he worked for the Environmental Protection Agency for five years on toxic waste policy, trained and practiced extensively as a mediator, and has taught a version of this course at MIIS for 13 years. Today’s simulation exercise explores a multination conflict over an imagined watercourse, the Zihum River, which forms borders of five neighboring nations. The students break into five groups, following a process Langholz has directed 5 times at The Hague, 7 times in the Middle East, and 4 times each in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and North America. The conclusion will underscore the importance of earned trust, transparency, flexibility, and most of all, enlightened self-interest. “It pays,” the professor says, “to cooperate.” There have been shouting matches, tears, and walkouts in his mediation exercises in the Real World, but at MIIS, working step-by-step toward an Ideal World, there is teamwork, reason, receptivity, and comprehension. Jeff Langholz’s article about this exercise rests on 100 case histories and will be published soon.

Screeching gulls perch atop the tiled roof of the neighboring AT&T building, echoing on the walls of the Monterey Institute. One may stand on tiptoes on the ringing second-floor balcony of the Morse Building, as a multicolored congress of national flags on their flagpoles waves in the breeze, and one can glimpse a smidgen of Monterey Bay. Toward the end of this first day of classes, four graduate students wander downtown to the water and Fisherman’s Wharf. They gaze at a heap on a wooden float moored to the whale-watching center: 25 sea lions of varying tonnage sprawl in a companionate pile. One meditatively scratches his side with a broad flipper. He grunts. Thirty yards away on a bobbing white skiff, two pelicans supervise the harbor.

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