Ellen Hunter Mai, Class of ’91
An A for Adventure
Ellen Hunter Mai ’91, a political science major, lives an extraordinary life. She has hunted pirates in the Malacca Straits and toured the illegal diamond mines of Sierra Leone, reported from Afghanistan and chased down communist rebels in Peru. But the seeds for all these adventures were planted at USC, where she leapt free of her Orange County bubble into a wider, more dangerous world.
While at USC, she took advantage of every opportunity, studying a semester in Spain where she met her future husband, Evan, a U.S. Air Force pilot; interning a semester and working directly with former president Ronald Reagan in his Culver City office three days a week; and, finally, interning at the White House for president George H. W. Bush’s advance team in Washington, D.C.
“All of those things were so fundamental to what I’m doing now, and all of them are because of USC,” she says. “USC laid such a great foundation and gives you the tools and the confidence that you can go out and do whatever you want to do.”
After graduating, she moved with her husband to his military assignments in Japan, Las Vegas and Virginia. During that time, she earned two master’s degrees (in international studies and public administration) and finished all classwork toward a Ph.D. in international studies. During her Ph.D. studies, she also worked as an intelligence specialist on drug trafficking for the Coast Guard. The Colombian cocaine trade fascinated her, but because she was a student analyst, nobody was eager to let her travel there to finish her research.
Back in Southern California, a friend introduced Mai to Robert Young Pelton, an adventurer and journalist who was heading to Peru to follow the Shining Path Rebels and investigate the cocaine trade. She asked to come along, and off they went.
On their way to a rebel camp, a car crashed into the duo’s motorcycle, and Pelton was rushed to a jungle clinic. There, he handed Mai the camera. Go film the cocaine-smuggling rebels and figure out how the trade works, he told her. She jumped at the opportunity - her first real experience in field producing - and in the jungles of Peru, she learned everything: how to shoot, conduct interviews and manage locations. Immediately, she was hooked, and the last few years have been a whirlwind of world travel, television producing and wild adventures. She covered the war in Afghanistan for CNN and the Discovery Channel, working as a producer and camera operator for major stories such as the American Taliban and the prisoner uprising in Qala-i-Jangi. She produced specials for the History Channel on modern-day piracy, child soldiers and the international mercenary trade.
Her most important work, she says, is with Developing Opportunity, the nonprofit she founded with her husband to bring education and vocational training to countries such as Afghanistan, Colombia and Nepal. Among other projects, the organization built and maintains two schools in northern Afghanistan. It’s all volunteer work, inspired by what Mai saw overseas, and funded by the generosity of friends, family and private donors.
The most amazing part is how she does all this, tromping about these global hot-zones with fearless self-confidence, keeping the camera rolling no matter what. “I don’t have a great sense of trepidation about things,” she says. “I jump in and just get on with it.”
And that’s what she recommends all USC students to do, too: Travel. Explore. Act. Don’t talk about it; do it. “Every time you go to another country, it’s just a whole other world, it’s a whole oth er group of people, another way of thinking, and it’s just wonderful. I would encourage everybody to travel. You don’t have to go to the places I like to go, but just get out of your comfort zone. It’s so good for you.”