The Unexpected Product of Mentorship at SIPA: A Shout-Out on Late Night TV

My name is Katherine Kirk, and I am a second-year MIA student concentrating in International Security Policy with a specialization in Russia and the Former Soviet States. In addition to the traditional SIPA specialization, I am completing the Harriman Institute’s Certificate Program in conjunction with my SIPA degree to deepen my regional expertise. A native of the D.C. metro area, I came to SIPA directly from Yale University, where I received my BA in Global Affairs.

Last Monday, on my final day of class, I received a surprise call from my sister, who informed me that Stephen Colbert had just quoted my work on The Late Show. Needless to say, this was not what I was expecting from my last day at SIPA. To back up slightly — this spring I enrolled in Alexis Wichowski’s course, “Technology, National Security & the Citizen.” The course focused as much on developing real-world skills as it did on teaching specific course material, and so rather than more traditional academic papers, Professor Wichowski’s assignments include a briefing document and an original op-ed. It was the latter assignment, which I began in March, that brought my words to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on May 3.

While conducting research for my capstone project ­– an analysis of Russian active measures on Twitter targeting Americans with content about the Syrian conflict – our team came across a study on Russian trolls’ participation in the online vaccine debate, which I used as a foundation for Professor Wichowski’s assignment. She told us at the beginning of the semester that the op-ed assignment usually resulted in at least one student’s work being published, but at the time it seemed a hypothetical prospect. Luckily for me, Professor Wichowski had other ideas, and encouraged me to submit the piece for publication. I took her advice, and shopped the op-ed to a handful of outlets before it landed at Foreign Policy. With the help of their fantastic editing team, I refined and expanded the piece, which appeared on the Foreign Policy website at the beginning of April.

I was thrilled with the article’s initial reception and grateful that it drew much-needed attention to Russia’s less overtly political information warfare operations. Little did I know that, when The Late Show with Stephen Colbert began work on a segment about Russian trolls and the online vaccine debate, my article would be one of their primary sources, which Colbert quoted when the segment went live on May 3.

Whatever I expected from my time at SIPA, it certainly did not include a shout-out on late night television. Writing and publishing my first opinion piece was one of the most impactful experiences of my SIPA career. Mentorship from SIPA’s faculty gave me the expertise to develop thoughtful opinions, the skills to put them into writing, and the voice to promote those opinions in the wider world.