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We Are Liberal Arts: Patrick's Story

Patrick Mendis, Associate-in-Research of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University
March 2, 2017
Portrait: Patrick Mendis in China
Patrick Mendis
MA '84, public policy and international affairs
PhD '89, geography and applied economics
In We Are Liberal Arts profiles, we ask our alumni to talk about their career journey, reflect on how their liberal arts education shaped them, and what it taught them to do.

The resort town of Perham in northern Minnesota has always been a magical place in my heart. As the first American Field Service (AFS) exchange scholar from Sri Lanka, I arrived there to attend the 1978-79 high school year in the “City of 1,000 Lakes.” I proudly consider this salubrious land of lakes my “birthplace” in America.

If there is a real “Lake Woebegone” in Minnesota as the University alumnus Garrison Keillor describes the fictional location in his “Prairie Home Companion” show, Perham fits the description where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” Certainly, the latter characterizes me as I had only graduated with a B average.

They taught me to speak English in “Minnesota accent,” fed me beef-and-mashed-potatoes and raw milk, and most importantly, imparted in me a “Minnesota Nice” disposition with their remarkable generosity.

When the Sri Lankan civil war broke out in 1983, the Perham community raised funds to bring me back “home” to America. I attended Fergus Falls Community College (now the M State—Fergus Falls) to “brush up” on my English and later worked at the Minnesota House of Representatives to gain the “legislative experience” during the 1984 session before attending graduate school.

Meeting guides for the journey

There I met the Honorable Edward Burdick, the legendary parliamentarian and chief clerk of the House of Representatives. He introduced me to Representative John Brandl, a highly revered professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and encouraged me to enroll at the University. During the ensuing years I stayed with the late “Ed” Burdick while working on my masters and doctorate.

At the University, I had an assortment of extraordinary mentors and professors, including John Adams, John Bryson, Harlan Cleveland, Royce Hanson, Jim Jernberg, Barbara Knudsen, Bob Kudrle, Barbara and Fred Lukermann, Josef Mestenhauser, Barbara Nelson, Michael Page, Willis Peterson, Vernon Ruttan, Joseph Schwartzberg, Connie Weil, among other. They gave me the very best in scholarship and leadership development and asked me nothing in return.

Like the friends of Perham, the University also funded my education through scholarships and fellowships. Towards this end, the journey began with Ed—the “guardian” angel and my North Star. He became part of my family as our children called him “Uncle Ed.” He edited most of my papers and books, including Glocalization, Trade for Peace, and Commercial Providence. Ed also inspired me to be a teacher, public servant, and traveler—as I taught, researched, and served in committees and boards at the University for seven years after earning the doctorate.

The lure of China

I have traveled to and worked in more than 120 countries and visited all 50 states in the United States and every province in China, and I have increasingly been attracted to China and its Confucian culture, and authored another book, Peaceful War: How the Chinese Dream and the American Destiny Create a New Pacific World Order between the United States and China. In retrospect, I began to see Ed’s lifelong commitment to public service, education, and the service of others that was similar to those of Confucius who idealized these professions as core pillars in a harmonious society. Ed exemplified the “Minnesota Nice” and the same selfless values as those of my mentors and professors.

These educators are (and were) blessed with giving to others. The noble professions of education and public service are themselves in the business of giving than receiving—and expecting nothing in return. For me, the interdisciplinary liberal arts education that the University has given me is everything I have to offer today as an educator, diplomat, author, and traveler. As small signs of gratitude, I established “The Edward Burdick Legislative Award” at the University and “The Millennials Award for Leadership and Service” at Harvard University, my other alma mater, where I am now serving as an associate-in-research of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.

I am also serving as a commissioner to the United States National Commission for UNESCO at the State Department as well as a distinguished visiting professor of Asian-Pacific affairs at Shandong University in Jinan, a distinguished scholar at the China National Confucius Research Institute in Qufu, and a senior fellow at the Pangoal Institution, the leading think-tank in Beijing. In previous years, I lectured at over 20 institutions of higher education, including Fudan, Guangdong, Hong Kong, Nanjing, Peking, Shanghai, Sun-Yat Sen, Tsinghua, Tongji, Wuhan, and Zhejiang Universities.

This long journey of Minnesota generosity—giving and receiving—began with Perham and has continued with Ed. For Confucius, the “generosity of soul” is one of the five perfect virtues in all circumstances of human progress. The University reaffirms this shared human conviction in my uncharted journey from tropical Sri Lanka to wintry Minnesota despite their differences in climate and extreme temperature! 

One of our Roadmap goals is that CLA alumni will be the most desirable graduates available. Current CLA students are learning about the Liberal Arts Advantage: a set of 10 core career competencies designed to help students intentionally develop and articulate how their experience in the liberal arts allows them to obtain the the competencies employers say they want and need in future employees.