FSI: What’s your hometown like?
KV: Auburn, California is between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe, pretty close to where the Gold Rush started. It's a beautiful area and growing up there has influenced the way I see the world. The complex history of the area was something that interested me pretty early on as a kid. On field trips in elementary and middle school, we would go around to old mines and mills, but there was much less discussion about what happened to the indigenous people that originally lived in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Last year I read Benjamin Madley’s An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, which opened my eyes to a lot of really chilling events that took place in what’s essentially my community’s backyard. I wish that I would have read it much sooner so I could have gained more perspective on the history of my home state and hometown. The complex political and demographic history that accompanies the idyllic natural landscape formed a bedrock of sorts for my current interests in history, international governance, and environmental policy.
What are you particularly interested in within the governance and development domain?
Within the last two years, I've dived into international political economy and have been learning about how economic models can help describe political and social systems. I’m interested in how those models can be applied to global development, as well as quantifying and unpacking the political aspects of governance and institutions — to what degree are the models of various political and economic institutions accurate or predictive? And in what cases do models fail us?
What are your long-term career goals?
I think long-term, I would like to work at a think tank or some other type of research institution. My general goal is to be part of the conversation about the way the world works and learn as many perspectives as I can. There are different aspects of academia, the public sector, and the private sector that appeal to me, such as innovation in public-private partnerships and the collaborative environment I’ve experienced in academia. Finding a career where I could balance all of those — I think I’d be happiest doing that.
Why did you decide to do your master's at Stanford?
There’s a lot of crossover between the MIP program and what I was studying in undergrad – international relations – both in terms of general topics and faculty members. My focus in undergrad wasn't so much on economics or political economy; it was more on international history and culture as well as a focus in Latin American and Iberian studies. As I was earning that degree, I was frequently grateful for how interdisciplinary the major was, and I knew that I wanted an interdisciplinary aspect out of any graduate degree program I would eventually pursue. MIP caught my eye not only because it checks that box but also because it offered a coterm option, so I was ultimately able to apply as a junior and start the program as a senior. It was a great opportunity to stick around Stanford a bit longer and continue collaborating with faculty and peers from undergrad.
I also had direct experience with FSI prior to applying to MIP. I did research with professor Lisa Blaydes, an FSI Senior Fellow, during the summer after my sophomore year. Working for her introduced me to a really fascinating intersection between history, political economy, and data analysis. The assistantship spurred me to beef up my quantitative skills. I minored in chemistry during undergrad, so to a certain extent I was used to working with numbers – but combining data crunching with actual historical datasets sparked something in me that has driven me to explore the path I’m on today. I knew that the MIP program had a quantitative methods sequence, so I figured I could continue my education in international history and international policy while also getting better versed in statistics and programming languages.
Do you have any advice for future MIP students?
I think that challenging preconceptions about what the program can offer you is really important because in MIP and at Stanford in general, interdisciplinary learning carries a lot of weight. You can have flexibility in a lot of things that you do. And I think you can see that in the movement of students [between specializations and interests]. Many people come in with a certain specialization in mind — maybe something they did as an undergrad or as a job — but then they realize once they get here that the way they see the world has changed. So they switch specializations or they dabble in both - maybe a mixture of Energy plus Cyber or GovDev plus Security.
It's a really holistic program and you can do tons of the things that you want to do and simultaneously fulfill general requirements. I think that because the program is small and flexible, you can really individualize your education while still building up common skills in the foreign policy, policy implementation, research methods, and economics core requirements.
Aside from academics, what are some of the most meaningful experiences that you had at Stanford?
The internship I did last summer at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development was incredible, and I had that opportunity thanks in part to my involvement with the MIP program. The woman who was my supervisor at the UN happened to be a visiting scholar at Stanford last year; she was looking for interns for when she would return to Geneva that summer and was specifically interested in hiring Stanford students. The job posting ended up being circulated via the MIP email list and I was fortunate enough to get hired. In general, getting an internship with the UN can be very complex, so the fact that she was looking for Stanford students because she was working on her research here was a really great opportunity.
Living and working in Geneva over the summer was life-changing: I met and collaborated with some amazing people. I was also able to tie in some of the concepts I had learned about trade, development, and policy change to the UN’s global work, and I have no doubt that I’ll be able to apply these skills to my next steps in research and potentially a Ph.D. down the line.