Michele Acuto (Italy) - Australian National University
Course completed in Australia: Master of International Affairs, Master of Diplomacy, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Diplomacy
Institution: Australian National University (Department of International Relations and Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy)
Year: 2007-2008, 2009-11
Current position: Stephen Barter Research Fellow, Oxford Programme for the Future of Cities, Institute for Science, Innovation and Society, University of Oxford
Michele Acuto admits that opting to study diplomacy in Australia was an unconventional step for an Italian.
“I was looking for a postgraduate education to further specialise my (Italian) studies in diplomacy in an English-speaking institution that was highly-regarded in International Relations,” he says.
The UK and the USA were obvious choices but colleagues at the Institute of International and European Affairs with whom Dr Acuto had worked in Ireland, such as former Irish Finance Minister Alan Dukes, suggested Australia.
It tuned out that the Australian National University (ANU) had just the course. “It was an almost unique degree worldwide which promised a combination of international theory and practice that was ideal for my aspiration, which at the time was to enter the international public sector.”
Dr Acuto enrolled in a Master of International Affairs at ANU, then went on to complete a Master of Diplomacy and finally a PhD in Diplomacy focusing on cities and global governance. The more he studied, the more he found his ideas about his career changing.
He credits great teachers, such as Matt Davis, a tutor and then lecturer in the ANU’s International Affairs programme, with making academia seem like “an inspiring, interesting job to do”.
The experience at ANU, he says, led him directly to his current Research Fellow position at the University of Oxford.
“The passion for critical education demonstrated by some of the faculty during my Masters, and the chance to take up some teaching myself at both undergraduate and graduate levels convinced me to further pursue an academic career rather than going ‘back to the field’,” he says.
“The possibility I was given during my PhD to investigate a complex topic such as global cities while maintaining a solid grounding in international affairs, as well as the chance to undertake this unconventional study with the help of motivated and challenging supervisors, pushed me to seek a faculty position that was equally interdisciplinary and stimulating.
“Undoubtedly, it changed and shaped my career,” he says of his time at ANU. “By the time I started my PhD, I was hooked on it!” Had he studied in the USA, he believes he would have returned to work in diplomacy.
“The environment definitely played a part,” he says. “I liked the Australian way. It was less strict or stiff. There was no layer of bureaucracy - I could actually go and knock on a door and someone would be there willing to have a chat.”
The uniqueness of Australian academia became apparent to Dr Acuto on his first few days at ANU when he ventured timidly into the Director of Studies office on a blazing hot Canberra day and was greeted by a relaxed, smiling, informally-dressed person who invited him to “tag along” for a beer. It was, he says, a complete contrast to the formality, detachment and intricacy of the Italian system.
“It was then that I realised that Australia was going to be a watershed change on my expectations, and indeed a great place to be,” he says.
“Despite the complexities, setbacks and challenges of two Masters and a doctorate I have since not changed my mind as to this special scholarly atmosphere.”
Dr Acuto had the chance to work at the University of Canberra, and to visit institutions in Sydney and Brisbane, and says the laid-back attitude and relaxed approach was characteristic.
“It has been a welcoming and warm place were I was allowed to grow at my own pace while enjoying incredible natural environments and buzzing cities such as Sydney, and where most of the people I met were keen on listening to a heavy-accented Italian, making it relatively easy to blend into a quite multicultural place.”
Would he recommend studying in Australia to other international students? “Without a doubt,” he declares, especially to those looking for more than just a degree.
Even though he works in a leading institution such as Oxford, Dr Acuto says that when it comes to advising students on “high-yielding and highly-regarded places to carry out some postgraduate studies”, he often points them to the “unconventional” Australian institutions.
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