Mark McDowell (BA ‘88 Innis, MA ‘90) spent his undergraduate years split between Innis College and exciting locations abroad, including a stint teaching English in China and hitch-hiking across Europe. Years after graduation, Mark returned to Beijing—among other places and postings—to work for Global Affairs Canada. In 2013, Mark was named Canada’s first ever ambassador to Myanmar and opened the embassy in Yangon. In November 2018, Mark took some time from his current position at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance—where he is country director for Myanmar—to speak with Innis College student Louisa You.
What were your career goals when you enrolled at U of T? Did they change throughout your undergraduate degree?
I have to admit that I had absolutely no plan for my life or for my career when I started at U of T.
Actually, I think it’s a very different time now—I have the impression that people in high school are worried about what they’re going to do in university; people in university are worried about what they’re going to do after university.
I had no idea, when I started at U of T, what I wanted to do as a major. I didn’t even know whether I wanted to do arts or sciences. For the first two years I was—not “flailing around”—but I lacked a strong direction. I basically took my third year off to hitch-hike around Europe. In fact, it was only when I came back from another year off, this time to go to China, that I decided I wanted some kind of career that focused on Asia.
My whole undergraduate period was kind of a “happy mess,” and I guess I was just lucky enough that I wasn’t so financially pressed that I had to get a job right away. I sorted myself out while doing my master’s program in East Asian Studies. I did well, got a scholarship to do a PhD, and that’s kind of the end of my academic period.
A couple of years into my PhD, and at age 30, I thought, “Holy crap, what am I going to do for a living?” It was then that I finally decided, “I can’t be a student goofing around forever.” So, I wrote the foreign service exam and joined the foreign service.
I do think that many students now—myself included—worry about their careers after university. I get that the sense that hasn’t always been the case.
Right. Unfortunately, I’m a little nervous to say, “Just relax and goof around and whatever,” because the environment is a lot more competitive today, both academically and economically. And because of globalization, winning and losing in the economy is a lot more clear-cut than it was 30 years ago. It’s tough.
It sounds like your international experiences throughout undergrad were very formative.
In many ways, the time that I took off from university was maybe more of a determinant [of my career], because it was what I really loved doing. I loved travelling around and living overseas, whether it was in Europe or Asia. This also gave me a little bit of an advantage when I was applying to jobs because I’d learned a couple of languages while goofing around overseas.
It sounds like you weren’t just goofing around.
I was keeping my eyes and ears open, but still sort of goofing around.
Reflecting on your time at Innis, what are some memories that stand out?
I don’t know what the difference in character between the Colleges is now, but certainly in 1980, when we started here at Innis, Innis was very much kind of a counter-culture school. We had this kind of “reverse snobbery” toward people who were at UC, Vic, and St. Mike’s. We thought they were very boring, conservative, and so on.
I really liked the people whom I met here at Innis because there were a lot of … oddballs. My main memories from Innis are of offbeat people (and of parties).
In my era, there was … the start of punk and new wave, at the end of the 70s/early 80s. That was the crowd then.
Were you in any of those punk rock or new wave bands?
I had friends who were in residence at Victoria College and they needed a bass player and so the guitarist taught me to play six songs on the bass … so, I played [laughs].
Advice for current students?
I don’t want to encourage kids to quit. You’ve got to accept that you have to work hard and suffer, to an extent. But you’ve got to be doing something that you’re interested in or you’re not going to be able to sustain the level of work that’s needed. You cannot see this as a “daily grind” in order to get through four years … and especially if you’re going to go to graduate school.
I would say: you get a third of the benefit from your classes, and a third from your classmates, and then a third from everything else that’s going on around the university.
Oh, I’d never thought of it that way.
You could figure out the mix but I think it’s really worth taking advantage of all the activities that are going on, like guest speakers, and that kind of intellectual enrichment.
When you’re in a big place like U of T and in a city like Toronto you should really, especially as an undergrad, take advantage of all these opportunities and different ideas and do things that maybe you’re not sure if you’re interested in or not, when you’re in undergrad. Because… I had absolutely no intention of studying Chinese when I started here, absolutely none. It’s just because I met some people who were studying it and it seemed kind of interesting.
DON’T MISS CLASSES.
I’ll make sure to put that in all-caps.
Let me say it in a more positive way. Don’t waste the opportunity, take advantage of all of the opportunities to learn and do new things, and learn about new things and meet new people. It’s a pretty rare chance you have, before you get locked into something.
Could you tell us a bit more about your work with Global Affairs Canada?
I joined Foreign Affairs, not because it was my lifelong dream, but because I realized, “Shit, I’ve got to get a job.” It’s a rare job, where you can get a good entry-level positions without any academic or linguistic background. I was very fortunate; I was posted in New York, Taiwan, Beijing, Bangkok, and Yangon. It gave me a chance to do quite different jobs in quite different places, which is to my taste. I guess I like jumping around from topic to topic.
My last job [at Foreign Affairs] was opening the Canadian embassy in Yangon, and that was kind of a dream job because I’ve been interested in Southeast Asia for so long, and Myanmar’s such an interesting country. It’s also such a rare experience to be able to open an embassy; Canada has only opened, something like, a half a dozen in the last twenty years.
But once I finished there, I was getting a bit restless and, having worked in foreign affairs for almost twenty years, I just wanted to try to do something else. I wanted to stay in Myanmar because I had built up a lot of contacts and expertise there, but also I wanted to try something slightly different. So, I looked to international NGOs and intergovernmental organizations. That’s an ecosystem that’s really grown tremendously since I was in undergrad. A hundred years ago, if you wanted an international career you pretty much had to be a diplomat, but that’s not really true anymore. There are so many international jobs—leave the private sector aside— with large, diverse intergovernmental organizations. You can find areas where your specific interest is more central than, maybe, working in the Department of Foreign Affairs.
The organization I work for is the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance [International IDEA]. As the name suggests, they do all kinds of work that has to do with democracy—whether it’s elections, civic education, constitution work, assistance to parliament, or to other democratic organs in a country. So, I’m the country director of International IDEA in Myanmar. Compared to being an ambassador, you lose the wide scope, like cultural affairs, trade, and so on. But I’m able to focus more tightly on political and democratic-related work, and it’s very results-oriented. We run a lot of programs that help the people of Myanmar participate better in elections, and democracy more broadly, and that helps the government of Myanmar deliver elections and services. It’s very gratifying, in that sense. You see the results of your work a lot more clearly. It’s also sort of entrepreneurial in that you can identify areas of programming that you think your organization has expertise in, and then you fundraise. If you can put together a need, your expertise, and funding, then you’ve got a whole new line of work.
This kind of international NGO, or intergovernmental organization, work meshes very well with diplomacy in that embassies and governments fund our work. And we basically deliver the work that they would like to promote as well. It’s an interesting symbiosis between the diplomatic world and this intergovernmental and international NGO world.
I really encourage anyone who wants an international career or is interested in any kind of political justice, environmental, or humanitarian activities to look at that sector. It’s really rewarding.
Maybe, if I had to do it all over again, I would go straight into something like, the World Food Programme or International Crisis [Group] or one of these groups that does humanitarian or environmental work … Even leave the UN system aside, like Greenpeace or the Open Society Institute. There are so many intergovernmental organizations doing interesting work in different areas.
Interviewer’s note for clarity: The World Food Programme is a branch of the United Nations. Both International Crisis Group and Greenpeace are non-governmental organizations. The organization formerly known as the Open Society Institute, now Open Society Foundations, is a grant-making network.