The Australian

By Justin Burke

Bill Clinton is fond of saying "the things that unite us are greater than the things that divide us". These words rang true for my class at the US Studies Centre, where all differences in age, occupation or motivation for being there, were more than overcome by a shared love of The West Wing.

My motivation for doing a masters by coursework was to change my career. After 10 years in finance and industry — on the dealing floor of stockbroking houses, running a quarry, and working on major infrastructure projects — I felt the global financial crisis would guarantee nothing but unrewarding struggle for the foreseeable future. I also had an intellectual itch, and felt that this was the last good chance to scratch it. I had always been interested in America and quickly found my way to the USSC at the University of Sydney. Whether you admire or loathe it, I had always felt you couldn't hope to understand the modern world without understanding America.

Given the "patchy" undergraduate transcript I produced, the centre showed more than a little faith in my academic potential. But from the first class, I knew I had made a very good decision. The class discussions in the evening were some of the most interesting of my life. Our cohort was primarily taught by a team of young academics who were enthusiastic and demanding but also accessible. Other lecturers had unique specialties, including one who had argued cases before the Supreme Court and now lectured us on the US Constitution.

I learned so many things. I took subjects on US exceptionalism, media, and Latino cultural studies. The centre encouraged me do research for a semester, which resulted in a paper on energy security that I presented at an academic conference, an achievement I did not think possible.

Something the USSC did very well was attracting a constant stream of high profile visitors — academics, thinkers and journalists — for talks and discussions. I got to ask NATO general secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen an question at a small gathering. A talk by Tom Friedman of the New York Times was also memorable.

Some of the students felt that the upper echelons of the centre didn't know exactly what to make of masters students, and regarded us as a lost tribe, wandering pointlessly between the undergraduate and PhD domains. I found you got what you asked for: I asked for advice, references and introductions and was never refused. How was all this going to result in a new career? It was a question I heard often, probably because I looked like I was enjoying myself too much.

The centre had one formal avenue: it offered credit for a short internship program with the US Congress. While the USSC promoted the internship, they had no control over the selection process and it was actually open to students from many Australian universities. I selected my subjects strategically, blogged on relevant topics for the centre's website and maintained the required marks, but regrettably I was not selected and wasn’t particularly impressed with the explanation given.

Literally on the day of my final class — a US media subject with the ABC's John Barron and The Atlantic magazine's James Fallows — something infinitely better came to fruition. After many months of interviews, I was going to begin a new career as a journalist at The Australian. A variety of direct and indirect assistance from individuals at the centre contributed to this result.

On graduation day, I felt both proud and sad it was all over. Trying to change career via a degree of this nature was, in hindsight, a risky move. But looking around at my graduating classmates, I think we had all made far more important changes to our outlooks, and ourselves.

This article was originally published at The Australian