The true value of education
Blenheim man John Flanagan helped clear Kosovo of landmines in half the time it took him to complete a viticulture course at the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology.
Mr Flanagan was speaking at NMIT's graduation ceremony held at the Marlborough Convention Centre in Blenheim yesterday afternoon.
He was among 150 graduates at the ceremony, which was attended by more than 400 staff, friends and family.
Mr Flanagan spoke about the "four long years" it took to complete his diploma with the comparatively rapid rate it took his United Nations team to effectively clear Kosovo of cluster bombs.
They were on a mission to establish and lead a Mine Action Coordination Centre in 1999.
These days, Mr Flanagan is the part-owner and vineyard operations manager of McKean Estates in Marlborough.
"I've got a slightly different background to most students here," Mr Flanagan said.
"I've got a background in landmines and grape vines."
Mr Flanagan spent 20 years as an engineering officer in the New Zealand army, 11 of which were spent overseas leading landmine clearance programmes.
"I joined the army when I was 16 as a way to avoid going to university," he said.
"It was like boarding school - but without the guns."
His first overseas posting came in 1992 when he was sent to Cambodia.
One of his team members there, also his interpreter, was a farmer who had done a basic computer course. Ten years later, Mr Flanagan returned to Cambodia to find the man had completed a doctorate in geographic information assistance and was now South East Asia's leading expert in the area.
In a country devastated by the Pol Pot regime, where millions of educated people were exterminated, the man's drive to become educated was an inspiration, and for Mr Flanagan, a realisation about the value of education.
Mr Flanagan left the army in 2003 to take on the position of operations chief at the United Nations Mine Action Service in New York, where he was responsible for the oversight of landmine clearance programmes in 13 countries.
He has rubbed shoulders with the likes of UN secretary general Kofi Annan and has chaired the Inter-Agency Coordination Group for Mine Action, made up of 12 different UN agencies. In 2008, Mr Flanagan became the acting director of the organisation with responsibility for fundraising and reporting on the expenditure of millions of US dollars.
However, in 2009 came a career and lifestyle change, which began with a return to New Zealand and beginning his first tertiary qualification. Mr Flanagan enrolled in a viticulture course at the Eastern Institute of Technology in Hawke's Bay before changing in 2010 to NMIT as an online student in the viticulture programme.
He graduated yesterday.