Dr. Dwight King is retired and living in DeKalb. He has a son and an adopted daughter from Indonesia.
Few of us can boast about working alongside a U.S. president or helping change the direction of an entire country. And while retired Northern Illinois University Professor Dwight King has those bragging rights, he's more likely to talk about what his students have accomplished.
Born and raised in Hutchinson, Kansas, into a Mennonite family and community, Dwight learned early that education and peacemaking were important. That philosophy is behind his decision to make a gift in his trust to fund a scholarship that will help graduate students who are interested in studying social change in Southeast Asia.
It was during college in the 1960s that he became concerned with U.S. policies in the developing world, especially Southeast Asia. He had opportunities to pursue these interests at Harvard, Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago. "I went to Harvard University for three years and really got interested in international relations and political science," Dwight says. "I was also really concerned about not only what the Vietnam War was doing to us, but to Southeast Asians." Dwight says he pursued advanced international studies at Johns Hopkins and later the University of Chicago.
To complete his degree, Dwight says he needed a language in his area of study. He chose Malay—Indonesia's language—which would result in a relationship that has spanned much of his life. "I decided the big power wasn't going to be Vietnam but this huge country of Indonesia—about as wide as the U.S. and a population of 240 million," observes Dwight. "With its multi-party democracy, it is a very interesting country politically."
About the time the Vietnam War ended, Dwight journeyed to Indonesia on a fellowship while completing his dissertation. His 18-month stint turned into three years. "I became so fascinated with the country and stayed on as a consultant to the Indonesian Central Bureau of Statistics, which was trying to build social indicators," Dwight says.
In 1978, Dwight received a call from a former director of NIU's Center for Southeast Asian Studies, asking if he would be interested in a faculty position at NIU. He accepted the offer and taught political science, comparative politics and Southeast Asian politics through 2009 when he retired. From 2005 to 2008, he served as Director of NIU's Center for Southeast Asian Studies. Opportunities at the center strengthened his language skills, which enhanced his fieldwork.
Dwight has returned to Indonesia almost each year for the past 30 years. Some trips back were as a consultant to the World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Dwight says NIU students from Indonesia have played key roles in political change there. General Suharto appointed a committee in the late 90s to draft a new constitution to bring political change. "Four out of seven members on the committee were students from Northern," Dwight says. "In terms of the current democracy in Indonesia—students educated at Northern had a lot to do with it."
In 1999, Dwight's involvement in Indonesia caught the attention of former President Jimmy Carter. That year, Carter invited Dwight to help design, implement and monitor the country's first-ever democratic election. Dwight's work included participating in high-level interviews both as translator and adviser between Carter and Indonesian government officials. "Being in Indonesia with Carter was really exciting. He had open doors wherever he wanted to go," Dwight says.
In 2004, Dwight returned to Indonesia with the Carter Center and a 60-member international delegation to witness a second, equally historic, 2004 presidential election. Indonesian voters for the first time were directly choosing their president. Despite fears of political violence, a peaceful atmosphere prevailed and the elections received Carter's stamp of approval. "That was important," Dwight says. "That meant there was more international support to get more economic assistance to Indonesia."
Dwight says there is a lot of misunderstanding. "Having exchanges with a moderate Muslim country and building relationships on both sides is essential. Now that they [Indonesia] are committed to a free society—education is even more important. Student exchanges will be important to reach a goal of mutual understanding for all," remarks Dwight. That is coming from someone who has seen firsthand the kind of collaboration that brought democracy and political stability that much closer for Indonesia. Through Dwight's generosity, future students will have opportunities to make an impact for generations to come.