In honor of Galentine’s Day and as an International Security Policy (ISP) concentrator, I thought I would write a blog post that not only gives incoming students interested in ISP a glimpse in to the concentration, but also provides some perspective on being a woman in a field that is often thought of as a patriarchal space. To do this, I enlisted the help of Ana Guerrero, Brit Felsen-Parsons and Caitlin Strawder, three current ISP concentrator SIPA students to discuss the topic and give advice. But before I dive in, let me introduce you to these ISP women.
Ana Guerrero MIA’19 is a second year, MIA, ISP concentrator, specializing in International Conflict Resolution. Ana completed her undergraduate degree at Middlebury College with a Bachelors in Spanish and Italian literature, and a minor in Portuguese. Prior to SIPA, she worked for an Italian petroleum company where got to explore her interest in geopolitics. Ana is interested in Middle East conflicts, and during her time at SIPA, she interned for the Global Security department at NBC Universal, and is currently a Terrorism Analyst where she is learning the hard skills necessary to supplement her Theoretical education.
Brit Felsen-Parsons MPA ’20 is a first year, MPA, ISP concentrator, specializing in International Conflict Resolution. Before SIPA, Brit served for two years as a shooting instructor to the infantry and commander in the Shooting School of the Israeli Defense Forces. Brit then went on to complete her Bachelor’s degree at the College at Columbia University, double-majoring in Political Science and Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies. She also held research assistantships at the National Defense University, the Institute of World Politics, the Columbia University Political Science Department, and the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Teacher’s College, Columbia University. While at SIPA, Brit supplements her studies as a research assistant at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at SIPA.
Caitlin Strawder MPA ’19 is a second year, MPA, ISP concentrator, specializing in International Conflict Resolution. Caitlin completed her undergraduate degree at Florida State University where she earned a B.A. in Political Science. Upon graduation in 2013, she received two consecutive Fulbright English Teaching grants to serve in Colombia and while teaching she studied romantic languages, economic development, the then-present negotiations with the FARC, and conducted research on indigenous rights in Silvia, Cauca. While at SIPA, Caitlin interned on the Colombia Desk at the State Department 2018, and maintains a position as a conflict resolution practitioner and operations analyst at New York Peace Institute.
Now that you know a bit about these ladies, let’s jump in:
Why did you choose to apply to SIPA, and specifically the International Security Policy concentration?
Brit: I fell in love with SIPA, and specifically with ISP, when I took the infamous ISP core class – Professor Richard Betts’ “War, Peace and Strategy” (WPS) – as a sophomore in college. Since I did my BA at Columbia as well, I had the opportunity to explore SIPA, and I found myself most drawn to ISP courses and events. In my first year of undergrad I was still torn between studying political science and neuroscience, but with that first ISP course I was hooked. A few courses later, I had decided that for me it was SIPA or bust, so I applied to the MPA program. It’s been three years since WPS, and I can honestly say I keep loving SIPA – and ISP – more and more.
Caitlin: I applied to SIPA blindly following the Top Ten online rankings for international affairs degrees (like so many of my peers) and was delighted to get in. Joking aside, I had been living in New York for a few years and wanted to start the MPA adventure without sacrificing the family I found, my job, my apartment, or saying goodbye to the greatest city in the world. I was originally attracted to the program because of the International Conflict Resolution specialization, and I saw the ISP concentration as an ideal complement. I also thought it was important to study ISP particularly because I knew so little about it, while cognizant of its importance.
What are some misconceptions you have faced about the ISP concentration, in general, and as a woman in the ISP concentration at SIPA?
Ana: Students not in ISP think everyone in the concentration is either active or former military and male. They are very surprised I am neither of those, which always proves interesting.
Brit: I think some students might have the impression that ISP is very militaristic and masculine, and to a degree I can understand why. It’s true that many of SIPA’s military veterans (though certainly not all!) are studying ISP. Additionally, I know a lot of women studying ISP, and we make a unique, significant, and highly valued contribution to our classes and to the ISP community. I recognize that I might feel more at home in ISP because I’m a military veteran, but I think the non-vets in ISP have no trouble holding their own in the classroom or in conversation, because we all recognize that we bring different experiences and skills to the table. Although I may be biased, I think ISP is one of the most familial and welcoming concentrations at SIPA, in part because it is influenced by the military culture of camaraderie and toughing it out together.
Have there been any challenging aspects to being a woman going into the ISP field? If so how did/do you address them?
Caitlin: In terms of diversity, so much of getting the opportunity to work in some environments is the compromise of waiting until you have experience and standing before being able to authoritatively question assumptions of gender and roles in the workplace.
Ana: I think traditionally the ISP field has been seen as a “boy’s club”. To combat this, I am trying to learn as much as I can, both in classes and in internships, in order to compete. Additionally, I believe it’s important to foster a strong female network within ISP in order to help each other succeed in the field. For me it’s a double whammy: I knew being a first-generation woman of color in a traditionally white male field would be tough. But I also knew that would be the case regardless of the field.
What do you recommend those students who are interested in International Security Policy consider before they attend SIPA?
Brit: I would recommend that students sit in on a few lectures or events if they can, and that they talk to current SIPA students to get an impression of the culture, the workload, and the opportunities here. Columbia University has a distinct culture, and SIPA has a culture-within-a-culture all its own, which you can only get a sense of by talking to people who are part of it. Also, reading course descriptions probably won’t be as informative as hearing a lecture or two, in terms of getting a feel for SIPA classes. For those for whom that’s not possible, I would recommend reading up on SIPA’s faculty and centers/institutes (Saltzman, Harriman, the Middle East Institute, etc.) to get a sense of the kind of research being done in-house.
Ana: Think about what you want to do after graduation and where you want to work—and work backwards from there. If you’re thinking of working for the government with some level of clearance you should start looking at those applications (if they’re available) even before you arrive on campus for orientation. Also look into fellowships for federal service and keep an eye on those deadlines! Additionally, knowing where you want to end up will help you plan your course list so you get the most out of your precious two years at SIPA.
Are there any words of wisdom you have for women looking to go into the ISP field, and/or pursue the ISP concentration at SIPA?
Ana: As with anything we set out to accomplish — once you set out to achieve your goals, don’t take no BS!
Caitlin: Constantly look for networking events, career panels, and mentorship match-ups so that you have a chance to connect with different practitioners. Especially for women—give prospective employers a preview that the nature of the field is changing and they should anticipate a high number of specialists in technology, geopolitical conflict, and analysis who happen to be women.
Brit: First and foremost, don’t be intimidated by security studies or by ISP. It’s not all machismo all the time, or all military lingo all the time. Some of my closest friends (and the best people I know) at SIPA study ISP, and the concentration draws a diverse crowd from all walks of life. I’ll be honest: the workload can be heavy. The readings can be loooooong and dense. But if you are passionate about security studies, and about studying them in an incredibly diverse and cosmopolitan setting, then the ISP concentration at SIPA is the place for you. And if you are a woman interested in security studies, then I highly encourage you to apply. ISP is a pretty close-knit and supportive community here at SIPA, and it’s a great place to challenge yourself academically in order to best prepare yourself professionally. I love it, and I hope you will too!
I want to give a big thanks to Ana, Brit and Caitlin for their advice, and I hope you found it useful. I’d like to leave you with one final thought: ISPer’s at SIPA are diverse in nationality, experience, and gender; and while the ratio is not 100% perfect, it is evening out.
Madeleine Albright, a SIPA alum, once said, “It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent.” I think this sentiment rings true for many of the women I know in the ISP concentration who continue to move the needle on women’s roles in ISP, and who are not deterred by the stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding the field.
I hope you enjoyed this piece, and Happy Galentine’s Day!