Essay winner hopes to follow in Distinguished Speaker Thomas Friedman's footsteps
Posted: 03/12/2012
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New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman has been an important beacon in Ben Jones' intellectual and literal journey.

UTPA graduate student Ben Jones (right), is pictured with New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman during his visit to Pan Am recently as the third speaker in the University's Distinguished Speakers Series. Jones, a longtime fan of Friedman and his work, won an essay contest that allowed him to meet and talk to Friedman before his presentation to the community.
Jones recently met the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner when he came to The University of Texas-Pan American campus as the third speaker in the University's Distinguished Speakers Series.

The graduate student described his longtime admiration for Friedman and his work in an essay he wrote that won a contest to meet Friedman.

"It is my intent to live my life out in the wind of global events, as Mr. Friedman does," wrote Jones, 35, who is working on a master's in teaching English as a second language at UT Pan American. Jones, who also works in UTPA's English Language Institute, hopes to have a journalist career similar to Freidman's as he supports himself as an English teacher overseas.

"The degree is a practical thing to put myself financially in the Middle East so I can write more often with that bird's eye view," he said.

Jones said he read Friedman's book "From Beirut to Jerusalem," which won the National Book Award, in 2003, while living in the Palestinian city of Jenin during the 2nd Intifada. Jones was a volunteer human rights witness with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) during that Palestinian uprising.

"We (ISM volunteers) even acted as human shields to protect the everyday Palestinian people from the brutality of the occupation," said Jones, who wrote about his experiences.

Jones later returned to Palestine where he lived in a refugee camp and worked as a volunteer English teacher. "It was pretty intense. Those people have a horrible existence. They are neither here nor there. They don't have a nation state. They are not Israeli and never will be," said Jones, comparing their situation to what was faced by the indigenous American Indians.

During a time when he taught in Korea, Jones said he read Friedman's book "The World is Flat," which explores the impact of the growth of technology and globalization, which was evident in the small but economically booming country in which he was living.

"Again I found myself having an intimate experience with a Friedman book while witnessing firsthand the scenes he described," Jones wrote in his essay.

Although they differ on their opinions on a number of issues regarding the Middle East conflict, Jones said, he respects the work of and life led by Friedman, who covered the Beirut-Israeli War in the early 1980s and later became a bureau chief in Jerusalem.

"He certainly knows what he is talking about and has great influence on those topics around the world," said Jones, who got to join a number of UTPA student leaders who had dinner with Friedman.

Jones said he did not get to talk to Friedman much when he met him but gave him a folder of his writings.

Jones concurs with Friedman's comments during his University presentation about America's place in the globalized world and the need for citizens to adjust to that world before we are left behind.

"For people in a first world country, Americans are singularly uninformed about the rest of the world," he said. "The cure for that, I don't know. I think people don't read enough and that is not impressed upon their kids."

Jones, a lifelong avid reader, said he was interested in studying the larger world since his childhood.

"I was interested in adventure, but also in the way I thought that the third world was taken advantage of by the developed world, politically and economically speaking. I graduated a year early from high school, took my savings at that time and bought a flight to Indonesia," said Jones, who continued his travels in Southeast Asia for eight months, the last three teaching English in Bangkok, Thailand.

"I think anybody who spends any amount of time overseas will look back at that as one of the real touchstones in their life," Jones said.

When Jones returned from his first trip back to the United States in 1995, he moved from Illinois to Taos, N.M., where he made his subsequent travels from. He earned his BA from the University of New Mexico in international politics and history. He eventually moved to Austin to establish residency in Texas, with a plan to enter The University of Texas at Austin's teaching English as a second language program. But when he found UT Austin's program had a waiting list, he enrolled in UTPA's program last fall. He will graduate with his master's degree in December 2012.

Jones, who also attended Maya Angelou's presentation held earlier in this year's speaker series, said he appreciates the opportunity UTPA provides students to hear speakers of this caliber. He said some people may think the fees paid to the speakers might be better spent.

"But if that speech inspired a dozen students there that night in a way that might change their lives or whet their interest about these larger issues that America is facing, that the world is facing, it is worth it and a good investment," he said.

The last speaker in the 2011-2012 Distinguished Speakers Series is CNN network broadcasting legend Larry King, who will appear Tuesday, April 3. The event is free and open to the public, but seating is limited. Doors to the UTPA Fine Arts Auditorium will open at 7 p.m. for UTPA student, faculty and staff with a valid UTPA ID and at 7:20 p.m. for the general public. Those unable to attend can view the presentation live at

For more information or special accommodations, call (956) 665-7989.