A Decade of Success

An interview with Dr. Scherpereel

M.A. in Political Science, European Union Policy Studies
Executive Director Dr. John Scherpereel

After 10 years of being the EUPS Executive Director, Dr. Scherpereel is passing the reins to Dr. Blake. In celebration of his leadership with the EUPS program, Sara Rzegocki (EUPS ‘20) interviewed Dr. Scherpereel to thank him for his work and highlight his success with the program.   

SR: Why did you take on the position of the Executive Director of the EUPS program?

JS: I began working at JMU at a really interesting moment, in 2005. In those days, Jessica Adolino (the program’s founding director) was working with a diverse and pretty vast group of partners to get the program off the ground. The partnerships mattered a lot—Jessica was working with JMU staff and allies on the ground in Florence, people in JMU’s Center for Global Engagement (which was then called the Office of International Programs), faculty colleagues in the political science department, the College of Arts and Letters, the provost’s office, and beyond.

I came to JMU with a huge interest in EU politics and the transatlantic relationship, and, in those days before the first cohort’s matriculation, I worked closely with Jessica on the program’s academic curriculum. Once the program had been approved and the second cohort had started its coursework, Jessica moved on to another administrative position at the university, and the director’s position opened up. I was immediately attracted to it because it fit so well with my interests.

I was not—and, all these years later, really am not—an expert on Italy in particular. But I was deeply committed to the program’s goals and excited about pushing the program forward. Europe is such a critical partner of the US—economically, politically, culturally, and otherwise. I’ve always been keen on what Robert Schuman said way back at the beginning of the postwar European adventure. I’ll paraphrase—Schuman basically said that no one was going to build Europe according to a single or authoritative blueprint. Rather, people would build Europe step-by-step, through a series of concrete projects that would ultimately create solidarity among the people of Europe and a common set of values and understandings. I tended to see the whole EUPS project that way—as a concrete project that would build on a strong foundation, a project that would help, in its own humble but determined way, to knit the transatlantic and broader global communities closer together.

SR: What has been your most rewarding experience as the Executive Director of the EUPS program?

JS: Without a doubt, the most rewarding thing has been to witness the personal and professional developments of program alums. I got into the “education business” because it allowed me to follow my passion—to think hard about intellectually challenging and socially relevant issues, to share my enthusiasm with students, and to encourage a critical and open frame of mind among future leaders. I’ve been able to do those things as executive director, and I’m really grateful for that. But the best thing—and I didn’t fully appreciate or expect this going into the position—has been to see people’s horizons broadening and, often, doing big, important, and socially beneficial work. So, even though I’m transitioning out of my role as executive director, I’m looking forward to keeping in touch with all of the students, alums, staff members, allies, and friends who have shared pieces of the journey with me. 

SR: How has the EUPS program changed over the course of the years? Why were these changes made?

JS: It was clear to me, in the early years, that we had a unique and quite wonderful “product.” We are a challenging one-year M.A. program. Our operations are based entirely abroad, but our students graduate with a degree from a US-based institution that has strong networks in DC and beyond.

I knew that we needed to double-down on quality but also to ramp up our communications efforts—we had to do more to tell the world about who we were and what we were doing. So, one way things have changed is that we’ve really developed and professionalized our communications infrastructure. We’ve developed a pretty steady presence on social media. We’ve worked to institutionalize this newsletter. When we keep communicating and interacting with broad and diverse audiences, we attract strong, diverse, inquisitive, and globally-minded students who thrive in and beyond their time in the program.

A second change has involved the increasing integration between “Harrisonburg-based” activities and “Florence-based” activities. I’m always telling students and colleagues that the EUPS program is one of five “co-equal” programs that JMU’s department of political science administers. The B.A. programs in international affairs, political science, and public policy & administration and the M.P.A. program are pretty visible to somebody strolling through Miller Hall’s corridors. The EUPS program may be less visible to a visitor to Miller. But it is a critical part of who we are as a department and, really, as a university.

So, we’ve made some changes that try to render this fact more visible. For the past five years, senior professors in JMU’s political science department have been teaching in the EUPS program. The “Harrisonburg-Florence fusion” is not just about the political science department. It’s also been great to have colleagues from Economics and Foreign Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, for example, working with EUPS students. And the fusion is not just about “west-to-east” flows. We have tried to do more to “get Europe to the US,” to expose Americans to the people and ideas that our students encounter when they enroll in the program.

We’ve also instituted a number of changes—new, deeper, more structured relationships with institutions like the EUI and the University of Florence, various endeavors with our partners in Kosovo—that promote meaningful interactions among our students and counterparts in Florence. We’ve tried to really leverage the broadening program network—to link up program alums, allies, and current students—to benefit all stakeholders. And we’ve ramped up our engagement with the City of Florence. There are so many foreign students studying in Florence and so many more tourists going into and out of the city on a daily basis. We don’t want to simply take from Florence; we want to give to Florence. We really want to integrate into the city and to make a positive difference.

SR: What were some obstacles/challenges that you faced as the Executive Director?

JS: Well, the nature of the position itself is challenging. I’m based in Harrisonburg, and our Florence programs are in Florence! On-site staff and I are constantly in touch, trying to make sure that we are on the same page, that we’re working towards the same goals, that we’re apprised of relevant developments on the ground and at JMU’s “home base.” Thankfully, our on-site staff are great, and it’s been a pleasure to work with them. They clog up my morning in-box, yes. But I clog up their evening in-boxes! We talk a lot. Despite a fair amount of daily stressors, we share the same vision, commitment, and values. And they tolerate my stuck-in-neutral Italian!

Another challenge is that the position is so multi-dimensional. On a daily basis, you face such a diverse set of questions, some really big, some much smaller. Should we add this course or subtract that one? Should students live in the palazzo or in flats? Should we start a Youtube channel? What’s the best way of getting to Strasbourg from Florence? Should the palazzo get screens for windows? When do we start planning the welcome back/sendoff event? And on, and on. Addressing these questions, and deciding when they should be addressed, requires vision and discipline. You want to keep the ship moving forward. You want to prioritize the things that matter most. 

SR: What are your future aspirations for the EUPS program?

JS: I’m excited to see the program continue to develop. Chris Blake is an energetic, experienced, and deft leader. He has ideas, and he knows Florence, Italy, the EU, DC, JMU, and Harrisonburg well. He also knows South America well! Transatlantic relations are so important—arguably more important today than they were when I took on this position. I’m excited for new generations of EUPS students to engage with big ideas, to understand what makes transatlantic relations special, to develop their own international networks, and to excel in all of their endeavors. I’m really looking forward to supporting the program well beyond December 2019.

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Published: Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Last Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2023

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