by Matt Raab
For Catherine Killough (MASIA’17), an SFS graduate education is only one part of a diverse set of academic and professional experiences that have led her career in unanticipated directions. Drawing on her undergraduate degree in English, Killough is using her master’s thesis in the Asian Studies Program to tackle literature in North Korea while taking advantage of downtown D.C.’s internship offerings to become acquainted with the intersection between policymaking, international relations and domestic politics.
Killough’s interest in North Korea stems from both her personal heritage and experience as a liberal arts student.
“Aside from my own Korean heritage, I became interested in studying North Korea through my English studies in college,” Killough said. “I was always interested in the ways literature, especially early American literature, inform a kind of national consciousness.”
The political transition from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un raised interesting questions for Killough on the reality of discourse in North Korea and helped her to define her academic interests after undergraduate studies.
“Thinking about [literature informing national consciousness] in the North Korean context, where there is no easy mechanism outside of the state to create new narratives, I was both fascinated and disturbed,” Killough said. “That was the first time I felt both academically and personally compelled to pursue graduate studies. Since I came from a liberal arts background with very little experience in foreign policy or IR, I wanted to immerse myself fully in a program as focused as SFS.”
At SFS, Killough has engaged with a variety of resources, faculty and peers that she feels have broadened her perspective and raised ever more questions for her to answer.
“As someone who can get carried away by—and then cynical over—lofty or abstract ideas, I have been inspired by my professors’ abilities to bridge theory with reality,” Killough said. “I tended to come out of their classes with several more questions than answers, but I think that’s a good thing. Even if I struggled with the material, I knew I came out a more careful reader and critical thinker, and that is empowering beyond the classroom.”
She noted the general connection between academia and practice found in Washington, along with the mentors that have helped to guide and enable her experience.
“It’s been a unique experience having professors who are not only academic experts in their chosen field, but also politically savvy thanks to their experience in Washington,” Killough said, noting the “big impact” that Asian Studies Program Director Victor Cha and Professor Yukhi Tajima have had on her. Beyond the faculty, Killough has also found the student body to be a powerful part of her experience.
“My favorite part about being a student at SFS is being a part of the engaging and passionate student body here. I’m naturally attracted to people who are curious about the world beyond their hometown, so I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by such an internationalist cohort. I’ve learned as much from the students here as I have from professors,” she said.
Engaging with opportunities beyond campus has allowed Killough to inform her academic interests with in-depth policy experience. Killough’s summer internships in the Office of Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) and at the Korea Desk of the State Department, paired with her earlier experience teaching English in South Korea, have helped Killough understand the potential application of her academic research and guide her career interests after graduation.
Killough left these internships with a better understanding of the dynamics of foreign policy and the actors guiding international relations on the Korean peninsula.
Each position has brought me closer to getting a fuller picture of the U.S.-South Korea relationship.
Of Rep. Gabbard’s office, Killough said she “gained a lot of practical insight here learning about the process of implementing U.S. foreign policy in Congress, and how local politics can shape perceptions on other countries.”
“I pursued a fellowship in the office of Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard after I saw her during a House hearing on North Korea,” Killough said. “It struck me that as the representative of Hawaii, a strategically located state in the Pacific with real concerns about North Korea’s nuclear developments, she must be invested in not only domestic issues, but also foreign policy.”
At the State Department, she “benefitted most from observing the way different actors with divergent interests interact with one another. It gave me a new appreciation for negotiation, and a standard to live up to as a future negotiator.”
Fittingly, Killough hopes to be able to participate in the international dialogue on Korea in the future.
“My experiences here have opened me up to so many more avenues. Though I don’t want to limit myself to one position, I would like to serve in a mediating role between the U.S. and the Korean peninsula,” she said. “Whether this comes in the form of a diplomatic career in the foreign service or even speechwriting, I’m encouraged by the prospects.”
Killough’s research itself could also help contribute to understanding international and local dynamics at play in Korea.
“What was initially a vague idea fueled by some intuitive feelings eventually became an articulate theory. I wanted to know what accounts for the absence of a popular uprising in North Korea, despite the existence of several conditions that would predict civil unrest. My argument highlighted a shortcoming in prior theories on revolution.”
In combining her liberal arts background with international affairs and a regional interest in Korea, Killough has modeled a willingness to expand and transform her focus that she feels is an ideal way for fellow students to explore options in both the academic and professional worlds.
“The classes with material I had little familiarity with added new depth and dimension to my regional focus. I would say the same goes for the internships you apply to,” Killough said. “Diversifying your experiences and interests doesn’t make you less qualified for a job in this field. It forces you to approach an issue from new angles, stimulates creative thinking, and makes you stand out!”