During the aftermath of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011, most people worried about how fast they could leave or fly out loved ones. Mark Flanigan, MS Peace Operations ’06, on the other hand, was anxious about getting back into the country.
For Flanigan, there was no question of whether he would want to continue his studies in Tokyo as a Rotary International World Peace Fellow at the International Christian University. He waited for what felt like an eternity for Rotary International to let students return.
Flanigan first traveled to Japan in 2000 where he taught English to elementary and junior high school kids for the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET)  program in Nagasaki. He fell in love with the country’s rich history and culture, and stayed on three years longer than he had originally anticipated.
Flanigan then returned to the United States where he worked for the federal government for several years and studied at Mason’s School of Public Policy.
When he was selected to serve as a Peace Fellow in Tokyo in 2010, Flanigan couldn’t wait for the chance to be immersed in the Japanese culture again.
Flanigan was on spring break visiting his sister in Russia when he first heard of the earthquake and tsunami. Devastated by the news, Flanigan flew back to the United States to wait for word on the program’s status. Three weeks later, he was given the green light by Rotary International to return.
Upon return, Flanigan immediately jumped at an opportunity to volunteer for the Nippon Foundation Japan Tohoku Relief Project. He went with a group of 90 Japanese and 35 international university students from 20 countries to Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, a city known for its large fish market. Their main task was to help the fishermen and oyster producers in small seaside communities remove tsunami rubble and debris, and collect fishing equipment that would be needed once the industry began to recover.
“For the first time in my life, I was able to see a disaster firsthand at the grassroots level and participate in the response operation,” says Flanigan. “I felt as though, in some small way, I was finally able to begin putting all my theoretical training into actual practice,” he says.
Flanigan says his four days of volunteering add up to the “single greatest experience” he’s had abroad thus far.
While Flanigan already has plenty on his plate, studying full-time and volunteering in his spare time, there’s still no such thing as summer break for him. On June 13, Flanigan left for Geneva to intern with the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which is responsible for coordinating the international response for natural disasters and complex emergencies.
“We’re working primarily on the further development of the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group , which is an intergovernmental network under the UN that deals with urban search and rescue and related disaster response issues,” says Flanigan.
“Its purpose is to provide a platform for information exchange in order to define standards for international assistance and develop methodology for international cooperation and coordination in earthquake response,” he adds.
Although Flanigan is doing big things overseas, he hasn’t forgotten his roots at Mason. He says his time spent in the School of Public Policy is what really developed his interest in humanitarianism into something he could pursue.
“I didn’t really know anything about the practical aspects of planning and executing a real-world peace operation,” says Flanigan. “That is the strength of the program at Mason. It’s taught by people who have really worked in the field.”
Flanigan returned to Tokyo this fall, where he continues working on his thesis, which focuses on the nexus between natural disasters and human security, particularly in Asia. He expects to graduate from International Christian University with a master’s degree in peace studies in spring 2012.