2014 - 2015 Mattea Mrkusic - Harvard University

Image: Peter Mellalieu, Education Convenor, presents the 2014-15 Peter Brown Memorial Fellowship Award to Tracey Barnett on behalf of her daughter, Mattea Mrkusic. At left, Simon Mrkusic, Mattea’s father. At right John Drucker,  President of the American Club (New Zealand) for 2014 - 2016.

Mattea Mrkusic is the 2014-2015 recipient of the Peter Brown Memorial Friendship Award. The American Club of New Zealand offers the award to promote friendship between New Zealand and the United States through supporting undergraduate study in the United States. Having completed her secondary schooling at Takapuna Grammar, Auckland, Mattea completed eighteen months at the University of Melbourne with first class distinction. Transferring her undergraduate programme to Harvard University in September 2014, Mattea commenced studying Government with a focus on International Relations and Human Rights. 

Image: Mattea Mrkusic outside the United Nations in Geneva whilst leading New Zealand delegation to International Model UN (THIMUN), 2013.

By mid-June this year, the American Club of New Zealand had received eighteen applications for the Peter Brown Memorial Friendship Award. Whilst nearly all applicants met our revised and more stringent criteria for the award, the Selection Committee chose Mattea Mrkusic from a shortlist of six applicants. Each of these six applicants’ achievements and ambitions would have merited our award. Consequently, the task of choosing was both highly satisfying and rigorous as we sought for the special distinctiveness of the 2014-2015 award winner. In gaining the committee’s recommendation as ‘First Among Equals’, Mattea’s application was exceptional in several respects: her application essay; her outstanding academic and extracurricular achievement to date; and the clarity of her immediate educational and future professional objectives; and the means through which she would advance the aims of the Peter Brown Memorial Friendship Award.

In her application essay, Mattea articulates her passion for “social justice, both locally and internationally”. At age fifteen, having founded the first human rights group at Takapuna Grammar School, Mattea travelled to Australia to interview an asylum seeker who had sown his lips together as a last resort in protest about the conditions in the Christmas Island refugee detention camp. By age 18, Mattea was chosen to lead a 22-member delegation of young New Zealanders to represent the country at The Hague International Model United Nations conference (THIMUN). The annual THIMUN conference is a five-day practical simulation of the processes of the United Nations attracting over 3,500 students and teachers from 200 schools and 100 countries throughout the world. The THIMUN Foundation’s mission is “to promote and foster collaborative solution-oriented discussion to important issues by instilling a life-long passion for improving our global community in … tomorrow’s leaders.” http://thehague.thimun.org

Image: Mattea Mrkusic outside the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, Harvard University

In her PBMFA application, Mattea anticipated that her study plan at Harvard in Government would advance her journey towards achieving her professional objectives to work for the United Nations Human Rights Council, the International Criminal Courts or a hands-on Non-Governmental Organisation such as Reporters Without Borders. Located at Harvard, Mattea expected she would be educationally immersed with like-minded people matching her intellectual excellence, ambition, and practical engagement with emerging political issues such as the forthcoming US election campaign.

Even before departing for the United States, Mattea had begun to initiate activities strongly aligned with the intent of the Peter Brown Memorial Friendship Award. As a founding consultant for Crimson Consulting, Mattea began assisting New Zealand high school students to achieve their goal of gaining entrance to United States colleges through preparation for the (tertiary) college admissions test (SAT), interview technique workshops, and essay writing classes. Mattea wrote “I’d love to see more Kiwis go overseas for university and overcome our Tall Poppy Syndrome. I think blending New Zealand’s can-do, adventurous attitude with international perspectives allows you to see the world through a different lens, and challenges you to think about your own morals and ideological axioms. To this end, I’d love to be a regular contact working with the American Club, so that NZ-based students intending to study in the US can have a contact.”

Image: Mattea Mrkusic presenting graduation speech at Takapuna Grammar School, Auckland.

First impressions of Harvard University

In the following interview with the Dr Peter Mellalieu, the Education Convenor for the American Club, Mattea reflects on the first few weeks of her life in the US and her studies at Harvard. 

Mattea, you departed for the US from Auckland in July travelling via the mountains of Spain. You have now been at Harvard since early September. What have been the highlights of your life and study so far in the US?

While I’ve had many highlights so far at Harvard, one of my most vivid memories was my first day on the Harvard campus.  I turned up at Harvard looking absolutely rugged: I had just spent two months in Northern Spain, en route to the States, hiking the Camino de Santiago, a medieval pilgrimage trail. I stepped off the plane with a bulky pack and blistered feet from walking 450km across Spain—and went straight to transfer student orientation. Battered up hiking boots give quite the first impression, I think!

Image: Mattea Mrkusic exploring ruins in Spain prior en route to the United States.

On that subway ride from the airport to Harvard, I remember looking at the subway map and slowly counting down the stops to Harvard Square. Up until that moment, it hadn’t really sunk in that there was a new life awaiting me at that subway stop. For months, Harvard had felt like a monolithic word that I used in a future tense. But as each stop grew closer, the actuality of Harvard hit me. There’s always a wonderful moment when you walk up the steps from the subway stop, and emerge in your destination. It’s like you’re a groundhog resurfacing in a new, unexplored place. Ascending the stairs at the Harvard Square T-Stop was that kind of moment. 

Image: Harvard Square

Of course, since then there have been many other Harvard highlights: hearing Journalist Nicolas J. Kristof speak in Sander’s Theatre, going to ethicist Michael Sandel’s lectures and getting my first papers back. A daily highlight is walking from my dorm to Harvard Yard. You forget, especially when you are from the relatively recently-settled New Zealand, that Boston is steeped in history. On my way to class, I walk past a sign that says ‘Under this tree, in July 1775, George Washington first took command the American Army’. It’s a quiet reminder of those who have walked the Harvard grounds before me. 

Image: General Douglas MacArthur Square, Boston.

You no doubt had some anticipation of what “American Life” would be like from your prior study, film and TV, your family, and general “prejudice”. What are the more startling contrasts you are finding between your newly-experienced “American Reality” and your anticipations?

I certainly had a picture of what I thought “American Life” would be like prior to moving to the States. There are some American cliches that are spot on: Americans love any excuse to decorate for a holiday. America in October is hilarious. Everything is pumpkin themed: Starbucks has pumpkin spiced lattes, friends invited you over for pumpkin carving–even the Harvard dining hall yoghurt flavor temporarily changes to ‘pumpkin spice’.

Image: Halloween in New England, Gardner.

I’m happy to say some of my other pre-conceptions were wrong. Honestly, I thought American college life would be more intimidating than it is. I think ’The Social Network’  did a pretty good job of painting Harvard as a misogynistic, hyper-competitive university. My experience of Harvard has not been that. People are incredibly welcoming when you mention that you’re a transfer student from the other corner of the world—especially when they find your Kiwi slang hilarious (who knew ‘togs’ and ‘jandals’ could be such a good conversation starter?)

Image: Harvard Square store "The Coop” retailing Harvard University memorabilia.

Harvard and Boston generally is full of “bright young things”. How do you find the sense of collegiality and competition compares with your early university and school studies?

The interesting thing about being a transfer students is that I have a point of comparison between Harvard and the University of Melbourne. Generally, I would say that the academic competition at Harvard is more rigorous. People are more motivated to take up ten extra-curriculars and intern with a couple of organizations, while juggling academics. (I’ve yet to figure out if they sleep.) The sense of collegiality at Harvard is pretty special, because the campus is smaller than the University of Melbourne: Harvard is around 7,000 undergraduates, compared to Melbourne’s 35,000. College spirit is far more present here—I’ve been told the annual Harvard/Yale game is a blast. 

Image: Old Boston centre towards Charles River and glimpses of Harvard upstart rival, MIT. View from Prudential Centre tower.

How is the Harvard experience advancing you towards the goals you espoused when you first applied for the PBMFA. Have your goals matured or stretched in anyway? How?

Before coming to Harvard, I had my sights set on working for the United Nations Human Rights Council or in international environmental policy. I didn’t know where I wanted to fit into these frameworks, or what my role would be. Early in the semester, one of my Teaching Fellows gave me a really useful piece of advice: “don’t be a cookie cutter to pander to the institution you want to work; instead, learn to balance being an ever-curious generalist with being an expert in your chosen field, and then the institution will want to work with you.” This piece of advice has helped me redefine my goals. I’ve found myself looking forward to specializing in a specific field: the cross section between human rights and climate change, also known as environmental justice. 

Image: Performance artist Matthew Silver carries the weight of a world afflicted by climate change.  Source: On the Ground: People’s Climate March (Mrkusic, 2014)

What have been some of the most demanding or interesting challenges you’ve faced at Harvard? How have you overcome those challenges?

There are two key challenges that face every Harvard student: first, scarcity of time and second, trying to decide how you want to spend that time, with all of the incredible opportunities on effort. My timetable is crammed with participating in a Campaign and Advocacy program at the Harvard Institute of Politics, volunteering with the Environmental Action Committee, writing for the Harvard Political Review and participating in the Harvard Women in Leadership program. Oh, and studying, that old thing…

Another one of the interesting intellectual challenges that I’ve faced is regularly interacting with people who have completely different moral and ideological axioms. At the University of Melbourne, I felt very much comforted—but ultimately sheltered—by like-minded individuals. Here at Harvard, when I discuss issues with members of Harvard’s diverse student body, I am exposed to debates in which I really have to interrogate my own beliefs. It’s both challenging and refreshing.


Image: Harvard students Camille Schmidt, Canyon Woodward, Henney Sullivan, Mattea Mrkusic and Jasmine Opie reconvene at Central Park West having participated in the historic People’s Climate March in Manhattan, New York during the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2014.  (Mrkusic, 2014)

What advice can you offer to future New Zealanders aspiring to study in the US, and Harvard in particular?

If I could offer any advice to Kiwis looking to study in the US, I would say, just throw your name in the hat and apply! I think New Zealand’s latent Tall Poppy Syndrome can affect people’s outlook on international education, and it shouldn’t. You have so much to gain from it: a new perspective, the ability to interact with incredible professors and the ability to have a broad education. I think blending New Zealand’s can-do, adventurous attitude with international perspective allows you to see the world through a difference lens, and challenges you to think about your own ideological axioms. Of course, the application process can be daunting—but studying for the SATs and writing application essays are surprisingly manageable. For applying to Harvard, make sure you have a strong admissions essay that captures your story, and who you are, in an unconventional way.

Image: Harvard Faculty authors on sale at Harvard Square bookstore, “The Coop”

How has your special interest in Environmental Politics advanced since joining Harvard? How do see that interest will develop over the next year?

Harvard has been a fantastic place for developing my interest in Environmental Politics. Since arriving, I’ve been involved with Divest Harvard, a grass-roots campaign that advocates for fossil fuel divestment of Harvard’s financial endowment. I have also been involved with Harvard’s Environmental Action Committee. 

A friend and I are in the process of undertaking a research project for one of our classes, Environmental Politics. The aim of this research is to devise a rubric for meaningful environmental advocacy, given that much of the environmental advocacy action to date has been criticized for too idealistic and not challenging dominant institutions in a constructive, effective way. Our intention is to use this research to create our own environmental advocacy action on the Harvard campus, through the Environmental Advocacy Committee. It’s incredibly gratifying to cross-fertilize ideas from the classroom and put them into activist action. 

Image: Thesis cover: Shifting from saying to doing: an environmental course for change agents (Scott, 2010)

In September, I went down to New York to report on the People’s Climate March for the Harvard Political Review. It was a photographer’s dream to capture: there were life-size puppets dotted throughout parade, people dressed as melting icebergs, a giant sculpture of the Keystone XL pipeline, etc. The Climate March solidified my passion for environmental issues, and how truly far we have to go.

Image: The People’s Climate March, comprised of 1,100 organizations and representatives from 300 colleges, reaches Times Square, New York.  (Mrkusic, 2014)

What are the most immediate events and challenges coming up for you over the next few months? 

Coming up next on my calendar are finishing ‘comping’ process for the editorial team of the Harvard Political Review (‘comping’ is Harvard slang for a trial process to be admitted onto the editorial team), devising an environmental advocacy action for Harvard’s Environmental Action Committee, securing an internship for the summer and final exams. Before I know it, it will be December, and I’ll be headed back home to New Zealand for Christmas on the beach—a highly-anticipated escape from snowy Boston!

Image: Field of Akademios, Harvard University

On a closing note, I’d like to take a moment to thank the American Club for their generous contribution to my education. It makes the road to paying for my education that much easier, and for that I am incredibly grateful. I wish you all the best for your AGM this evening, and send my regards from the red, autumnal Boston!”

Image: Memorial Church for the Harvard men who died in the World War


You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”

T.H. White, “The Once and Future King”, quoted in Mattea Mrkusic’s essay in application for the Peter Brown Memorial Friendship Award 2014-2015.

First published:
Mellalieu, P. J., & Mrkusic, M. (2014, November 4). Award to the recipient of the Peter Brown Memorial Friendship Award 2014-2015, Mattea Mrkusic [Photo essay]. Retrieved 2 April 2016, from http://pogus.tumblr.com/post/101689797263/peter-mellalieu-education-convenor-presents-the

Photographs of Mattea Mrkusic


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