Gatepost Interview: Joseph Coelho Assistant Professor of Political Science

What is your background and what led you to the field of political science?

I’m from here – I grew up in Massachusetts. I went to several undergraduate programs but ended up with my master’s and Ph D. going to Northeastern in Boston. When I was there, I took courses in international politics and I got to take courses in post-Soviet and post-communist countries. So, taking those courses, I kind of really fell in love with the idea that all these countries, when I was in grad school, are undergoing these really huge political, social and economic transitions. … So I started studying Russia and southeastern European politics when I was a grad student. But then I took a class in the former Yugoslavia, where not only did they go through all of those transitions, but they also went through ethnic war, civil war, genocide and ethnic cleansing. It was this huge conflict in addition to all these other socio¬economic processes going on at the same time. It was really interesting to me and so I did my field research in the Balkans. I studied at Bosnia, Herzegovina, Macedonia and Kosovo, which used to be a tiny province that was part of Serbia. … And so I spent several years doing field work there, studying how countries emerge from civil war and achieve some sort of level of democracy and free markets. … So that’s the case of my research. Obviously that’s related to political science. … Since I’ve completed my doctoral work at Northeastern, I’ve been going to Kosovo almost every year in the summer. … I’ve been to some pretty interesting places and met some really interesting people. For instance, I drank macchiatos and coffee with a war criminal that was indicted by the Hague. He ordered the execution of hundreds of women and children. So he’s responsible for murders, and he was in the Hague for two years. He’s out already. … He was just so calm with himself and I’m like “This guy’s a murderer!” … So as a scholar and as a teacher, I take those experiences from abroad and try to bring them to my classes.

What is your proudest achievement?

So far at the school, I would say model UN and taking my students to do the competition at BU. They competed against Harvard, Brown, Yale and all the top Ivy schools. I was very proud of them – they did a really good job. … It’s just a really good way for students to take their FSU education outside the classroom and learn about this material a different way. … The one that my students did at BU was called Crisis Model UN. It’s a little bit different. In this thing, students were not countries. I had fifteen students in my class and they gave each of the students a person or a role. Some students were businessmen or oilmen. Some students were the leaders of a rebel movement or a terrorist organization. They’re put into this room with other schools and role players. The BU people did a great job. The students there created these scenarios. Your character could die – they came in with masks and cut the throat of one of my students. Pretend, obviously. So they killed off his character, right in the middle of the game. It was intense.

What is one thing your students might find surprising about you?

Probably the biggest thing for me was, before I did this whole academic thing, I was a musician. I was in a post-punk band. I toured and traveled a lot with my band. I won’t say the name of the band for the sake of embarrassment. … I think that was the most shocking thing people could find out about me. When I was doing the band with my buddies in my young twenties … in the back of my head I was like, “Yeah. We’re going to make it.” But really deep in the back of my head I was like, “We’re not going to make it. So I’d better go to grad school. Make sure that, when this ends, I have something to do with myself.” A lot of my friends who live in New York and live in Brooklyn – hipster town – still live there and are still working in bars. It was like, I just can’t see myself still doing that in my mid-thirties. I was glad that I took the academic route while I was doing the band thing and studied hard and got scholarships and now I’m a professor, which is something I never expected I was going to be in my twenties.

So what were you like as an undergraduate?

I was a mediocre student. I got really into my studies by my junior year. My freshman and sophomore years, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was really lost. I was switching from major to major. … It just took a while for me to get used to the whole process. I’m trying to tell my students who are struggling freshman year and sophomore year, it just takes a while. It’s a learning curve. You learn how to be a better student as time goes on.

If you could give one piece of advice to your students, what would it be?

To be open-minded, to be flexible and to be daring. Get out of your comfort zone. That’s my most important advice. … Or once you’re done with school backpack around Europe or do something that takes you out of your safe zon

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