International Relations Ph.D. student earns UNESCO award

Thomas Just during his 2015 trip to Turkey as part of the International Summer University for Intercultural Leadership program.

Thomas Just during his 2015 trip to Turkey as part of the International Summer University for Intercultural Leadership program.

Thomas Just, an international relations doctoral student, recently won a “Young Ambassador Award for Peace and the Rapprochement of Cultures.” The honor – awarded by the Aladdin Project, under the patronage of UNESCO and with the support of the European Commission – recognizes a research project Just conducted in 2015 while participating in the International Summer University for Intercultural Leadership.

The summer program brings together top students and world-class faculty from universities across the globe to cultivate the values of peace, mutual respect and intercultural dialogue. For two weeks each year, students attend lectures and workshops as well as social and cultural events. Students also work in groups to develop research projects, which they complete after the program ends.

Held in Cappadocia, Turkey, the 2015 program was themed “The Power of Images: Truth, Manipulation and Intolerance.” For their research project, Just and his group analyzed the images and branding strategy used by the political extremist movements of Nazism as well as ISIS and its affiliates.

“Our central question was, ‘what themes and symbols allow political extremist movements to create a brand and develop potential followers’?” Just explains. “Our goal was to find ways for countries to combat that sort of ideology. I think our main message is that in order to truly curtail the growth of extremism, societies must expand their efforts beyond military campaigns and focus on ideological campaigns. It’s through ideas that extremism grows.”

In May, Just accepted the award for his work at a gala dinner at the Hotel de Ville in Paris. Former President of France Nicolas Sarkozy gave the main address. Irina Bokova, the director-general of UNESCO, also spoke at the ceremony. The event was under the auspices of the Aladdin Project, UNESCO and Erasmus+. Also in attendance was FIU Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies Tudor Parfitt, who is the director of the Education Mission of the Aladdin Project.

Thomas Just receives his award at the Hotel de Ville in Paris

The most rewarding part of the research project and the summer university, Just says, was meeting students from all around the world.

“I learned a number of things about their particular cultures, languages, religions, etc.,” he says. “The network of new friends and colleagues that the program has provided me with is a tremendous asset with regard to my future as a researcher.”

Today, he continues to remain in contact with his group members, which included students from Iraq and Tunisia. Just plans to visit two of them this summer, one in Istanbul and one in Israel.

Getting to meet students from around the world is also one of Just’s favorite things about FIU. He feels his interactions with students from diverse cultural backgrounds at FIU helped him prepare to work in international research teams.

Just’s area of interest centers on public diplomacy; he has been researching how countries overcome genocide and combat anti-Semitism as well as religious intolerance. He currently teaches American Foreign Policy at FIU.

His list of accomplishments is extensive. Under a Jonathan Symons fellowship, Just conducted research with Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies Tudor Parfitt from 2014 to 2017.

Just has already published four articles in peer-reviewed journals – a lofty achievement especially for students still in grad school, says Associate Professor of Political Science Tatiana Kostadinova.

“He is a very careful researcher,” says Kostadinova, the chair of Just’s dissertation committee. “He is extremely dedicated to his work and extremely enthusiastic. He has this spark which makes a good researcher become an excellent researcher. He is inspiring when he starts talking about his studies.”

One of the things that sets Just apart, she says, is his in-depth approach to research. “He pays attention to nuances,” she explains. “It’s not only politics, but history, philosophy, anthropology…he is interdisciplinary-oriented. I think he will continue to be very productive in the future and be a successful young scholar.”

Just will graduate at the end of this summer.