John Mason

MA Latin American Studies Alumnus, 1998

June 7, 2023

John Mason graduated with a MALAS degree (Political Science specialization) in 1998 as part of his training to become a Latin America Foreign Area Officer in the U.S. Army. In that role, he worked in Ecuador and Bolivia, liaising with U.S. embassies and local agencies, and serving in peacekeeping and counter-narcotics programs. He retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in 2006 and spent ten years in Ecuador working in small business development and crisis management initiatives.

What is your current position?

Right now, I work for UPS as an industrial engineering planner in New York City, covering Manhattan, up through Harlem, part of Queens, and up to the Hudson Valley. My future is in Ecuador, though. We built a home there, and I hope to semi-retire and teach at one of the universities in Quito.

What motivated you to pursue a MALAS degree?

I first learned about area studies degrees in the early 1990s when I was an artillery officer in the U.S. Army at Fort Bliss, Texas. My new boss was a foreign area officer who had just come from Cairo. Guys like us, artillery, infantry, armory officers, can go to graduate school, and language school, and then work in embassies around the world in security assistance, security cooperation, things like that. I had a general interest in Latin America; my wife is Ecuadorean, so I decided to apply to the program and become a Latin America Foreign Area Officer. After intensive Spanish classes and a one-year travel study fellowship that took me all through the Americas, I came to Gainesville to study.

What was the most valuable part of your MALAS experience?

The whole experience was just fantastic. It helped put what I was starting to learn into a scholarly context and really put it together, with access to the resources of the University of Florida and the Center for Latin American Studies. What better place is there? It taught me to look at the body of literature on a topic, in an academic way, and think about it independently. It takes you to a different level of understanding. So it was very useful to reframe the way I was thinking about things, and it gave me a thirst for learning that I continued later on. And it was critical, just fundamental, to my development in that it helped me understand Latin America better as a region, politically, economically, even the art and religion of the region. It’s all so fascinating, so varied, and changing daily. 

How has your MALAS degree informed your career?

I think the richness of the University of Florida experience was not only learning about the geopolitics of Latin America, but also remembering that there are people affected by all of it. There are policies happening at the governmental level influencing politics and economies of these regions, but we can’t forget individuals. There’s a human side of what we need to learn here, at any university. And the program at UF does a good job at it, because it’s so interdisciplinary. It brings together those things very naturally—the social sciences, the humanities, those aspects come into conversation with politics and business and economics.

What advice would you give students as they pursue their MALAS degree and/or graduate with a MALAS degree?

I know that each of them is working and studying and reading, and it consumes a good portion of your time. But I would say, always think about other things. It’s good to think about something other than you and yourself. Maybe that means volunteering, for example. I think it’s important to go out and get out of your lane occasionally: go to an art exhibit or concert, go to the engineering demonstration, whatever it is, go to something outside of your focus area and enjoy it. 

What career advice would you give students who are about to graduate or planning their professional path?

Go with an open mind. A door that’s open may not look like the right door at the time, but don’t ignore an open door. An open door has potential to bring opportunities you haven’t considered and allow you space to do things beyond your main line of work. Don’t set your eyes on one target and ignore other things that may pop up, because you’ll never know what may be. At the same time, I would encourage people to look at what’s important to them, what they’d like their lives to look like long down the road, and make decisions that help them reach those big picture goals. Decision making becomes a lot more clear when you keep your vision in mind and make choices that line up with those values.