By Suzie Bae ’20
Like many seniors, I was heartbroken when I found out that my last semester at a place I love so dearly would be cut short. The first few days were difficult – navigating the new e-learning environment, being bombarded by a minimum of 10 email updates a day, and adjusting to the new normal that would take place from the barriers of my home were just a few of the challenges. The hardest part though was moving out of my home in Williamsburg after receiving notice that the rest of the Spring semester would be conducted online. My home in Williamsburg is a cozy place that my housemates and I have endearingly called “The Cottage.” The Cottage is right behind the GRI house, and when I say right behind, I mean that I can hear the chitter-chatter of GRI porch BBQs from my room (which usually means free dinner!). I use the conference room as a study space during finals season over making the much longer hike to Swem. My alarm is often the sound of GRI research assistants locking their cars before they head in for work at 9 AM. But the Institute is not just close in its physical proximity. These past few weeks of spending my last month and a half as a senior, away from campus, have prompted a lot of reflection. I’ve thought long and hard about the people and experiences that have made W&M a home and an incredible three years. And GRI, without a doubt, has gifted me with so many of these people and experiences.
I first got involved with the Institute as a TUFF (Tracking Underreported Financial Flows) intern during the Fall semester of my freshman year. I knew little about GRI (or ITPIR, as it was called at the time), other than the fact that this was a good opportunity for me to get research experience early on in my college career. I dabbled in Chinese development research, digging for whatever info I could find on the country’s financing of development projects. I worked in a team of about 10 people, meeting with them weekly and leaving our meetings with a constant sense of “wow, they hired me as a freshman and actually trust me to do this?” I remember telling my high school friends who went to different schools about the work I was doing – and they were shocked. I was hit with all sorts of surprise, from “you guys have internships for FRESHMEN?” to “wait, and this research is being used by big news sources like CNN?” I didn’t know what to say either – while I wasn’t sure that Chinese development was exactly my passion, I knew that I was gaining valuable research skills I could apply to other experiences down the road.
My time with GRI continued as I enrolled for David Trichler’s Policy Entrepreneurship class during the Spring semester. This was around the time I grew curious about both business and public policy, so I saw the class as a perfect fit for this crossover of interests. I also wanted to do more than research through the Institute and saw some well-designed graphics (something GRI never fails to craft) that advertised the class, so I thought it was worth a shot. I’m so glad I made that choice – Trichler pushed aside traditional lecture-style classroom settings and instead engaged us to come in with policy issues we were curious about, carefully craft solutions for them, and pitch ideas as if we were competing on Shark Tank. The class transformed into a more collaborative setting as we were grouped with similarly-minded classmates and tasked with creating policy pitches. It was the first time I got to explore my interests in North Korean nuclear security in a way where I had control over the policy lens through which I was assessing the problem. The class tested my ability to think on the spot, hone my presentation skills before multiple panels of judges, and clearly explain why my policy solution was fitting and relevant. I’m not going to lie – I constantly felt challenged by the rapid-fire nature of the class, especially surrounded by upperclassmen for the most part, but it was the break that I needed from the traditional, slower-paced classes I was taking.
Policy Entrepreneurship class session where we were paired with mentors for the day
Through Policy Entrepreneurship, I was introduced to Duenya Hassan, a former Program Coordinator at GRI, who was our TA for the course. While Duenya and I had not interacted much outside of the classroom, I had applied to GRI’s Summer Fellowship Program earlier in the semester and was invited for a final-round interview. To my surprise, Duenya was sitting at the other end of the table, a familiar face that lessened some of my nerves as a freshman at her first official interview. Through our interactions within the classroom, Duenya was familiar with my strengths, as well as weaknesses. This made the interview a more casual conversation if anything. A few weeks later, I received exciting news that marked the beginning of my send-off to Vientiane, Laos, where I would work for Village Focus International (VFI), a development organization based in the capital. This was when my relationship with GRI grew to its most formative state. Through the Institute’s support, I got to work for an organization with an incredible mission, explore my interests in international development within a global context, and personally grow as I maneuvered through the daily challenges of living 8,000 miles away. And throughout all of this, I had only just completed my first year of college. It was remarkable to reflect on the endless number of experiences GRI had gifted me with, just within the eight months I had been on campus.
Celebrating Sam’s (my co-fellow’s) birthday with VFI co-workers
If I ever felt unsure about what I was interested in, GRI always had the answers and options for me to continue exploring. Last year, as I prepared for my second to last year of college, I contemplated pursuing a career in national security post-grad. I wasn’t sure where to take this budding curiosity, but the Institute met me right in the middle through its e-internship program. The program paired me with the Air Force (and then the Marines for this year) and an incredible mentor, Mr. Timothy Miller. I had the chance to present before a panel of Air Combat Command and G-2 representatives, leaving with a military coin that was given to me by one of the officers. This military coin is a small reminder of the incredible people – mentors, professors, classmates – that the Institute has connected me with. It was almost as if I had assumed that opportunities like these were normal for college students, only to be reminded of how GRI’s pursuit of the extraordinary was what produced extraordinary experiences like these. It wasn’t normal, but in every single positive way – and the Institute never settled for anything less during my time there.
Two weeks ago, ’20 GRI Summer Fellows found out that all GRI-sponsored travel would be canceled for the summer, based on university guidance surrounding COVID-19. I was heartbroken when I received the news, as I looked forward to rounding out my last college summer with the Institute before launching into a full-time job. I was excited to continue my positive experience with the fellowship program for a second year in The Philippines. As saddening as the news was, it spurred greater reflection and gave me the chance to think about the numerous other formative experiences GRI has gifted me within the last three years. While I am disappointed that my summer will not be spent conducting fieldwork with Habitat for Humanity in Makati City, I am grateful and humbled to be able to look back the way I have the past few days – writing this blog piece was almost too easy, as if I could write on and on without keeping my own page limits in check.
So to everyone at the Global Research Institute: thank you. Thank you for empowering students to ask big questions and never hesitate to seek your support in answering them. Thank you for building a community of curious academics, practitioners, and students who bring real-world issues to Williamsburg. Thank you for trusting a once nervous and uncertain freshman with Chinese development data, North Korean nuclear security research, and a summer in Laos. That freshman is now a graduating senior who can confidently say that the Institute was a second home to her, and a place she will miss dearly.
Looking forward to more porch BBQs and reunions in the future,
Note: GRI-sponsored travel has been postponed due to COVID-19.