Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Van Arsdale facilitates grassroots projects in East Timor

Peter Van Arsdale, senior lecturer with the Graduate School of International Studies, uses phrases like “By George!” and “tickled pink.” You’d never guess that this optimistic, charming man has seen some of the most impoverished people in the world.

But he has. And he keeps finding ways to see and serve them.

Van Arsdale earned his PhD in cultural and applied anthropology from the University of Colorado, which recently honored him as one of four exemplary graduates in the history of its anthropology department, an honor that had him “tickled pink.”

For more than three decades, Van Arsdale has worked in developing and war-torn countries such as El Salvador, Ethiopia, Sudan and Peru. Most recently, he has turned his attention to East Timor, a small country struggling for independence from Indonesia.

“East Timor was always in my consciousness,” says Van Arsdale. “But when Nobel Laureate Jose Ramos-Horta visited the DU campus during PeaceJam three years ago, things started moving.”

During PeaceJam, a program built around Nobel Peace Laureates working with youth, Van Arsdale had lunch with Ramos-Horta, who was co-awarded the prize in 1996 and is now East Timor’s prime minister. Van Arsdale described a program that could send DU students to East Timor for community development.

“He said, ‘Go for it!’” Van Arsdale remembers. “He said, ‘I want you there. I can promise you an open mind, an open hand and an open heart.’”

By December 2005, Van Arsdale had recruited three undergraduate students who, he says, conducted “recon” into community development opportunities.

“By George, those ladies made a big hit with the people they met! They succeeded in our quest to open East Timor to further DU initiatives.”

In summer 2006, two more DU students traveled to East Timor. Justin Kaliszewski, an international studies graduate student, had already started a nonprofit organization called “Edge-Ucate” and was working in Southeast Asia. He continued to build upon the relationships established by the three undergraduates.

“Dr. Van Arsdale was instrumental in helping us to make initial contact with Nobel Laureate and Prime Minister Jose Ramos-Horta,” says Kaliszewski. “We were able to have a receptive ear to our ideas in Timor and were, ultimately, expressly asked to stay and address issues of youth violence in Dili.”

Van Arsdale is going to East Timor in May. He has proposed a certificate program in humanitarian assistance, and if approved, GSIS master’s candidates will have the opportunity to travel to East Timor and contribute to the community development already under way.

Van Arsdale concedes that it could be easy to become bitter or depressed when faced so often with poverty and oppression, but he sees his work through the eyes of the individuals he serves.

“I prefer to tackle grassroots projects where empowerment has a chance,” he says. “I like to help people put one foot in front of the other.”

[Editor’s Note: The GSIS certificate in humanitarian assistance was approved.]

Comments are closed.