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Alumni spotlight: Meet Conor Cunningham

December 29, 2020

Conor Cunningham

In autumn 2020, one of the Jackson School’s newest alumni, Conor Cunningham, gave us his reflections on how the Jackson School expanded his world. During his time at the UW, Cunningham received numerous research and study abroad awards, most recently a Fulbright U.S. Student Program 2020-2021 scholarship for open study and research in Moldova for which he was one of only 14 UW undergraduates or recent alumni to have received the award. While his Fulbright has been officially deferred until September 2021, Cunningham currently interns for the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund in D.C. and is also a cybersecurity consultant for the UW Language Learning Center on their project “Addressing Cybersecurity Blind-spots: Enhancing Cultural and Linguistic Awareness.”

Name: Conor Cunningham
Studies: B.A. International Studies with minors in Russian language, French language, and Russian, East European, and Central Asian studies, Summer 2020
Hometown: Bainbridge Island, Washington
Foreign Languages: French, Russian
Favorite quote: “Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.” – Timothy Snyder

How did you choose the University of Washington?
Conor Cunningham: There were several reasons I applied to the University of Washington. First, I knew that I was interested in studying international relations at the Jackson School. Second, both of my parents were UW alumni. Third, from a financial standpoint, as an instate school, the UW made the most sense for me.

How did you decide to major in International Studies?
I chose International Studies because of my passion for history and two years I spent living in the French-speaking part of Switzerland with my family in my youth. This combination solidified my belief in the importance of being a global citizen engaged with other areas of the world, and the essential part language plays in cross-cultural relationships. I knew that the Jackson School would provide a multi-faceted approach to understanding and deepening my knowledge of global issues.

Tell us about the places you’ve been able to study or research abroad as an IS major.
C.C.: During my time at the Jackson school, I have had the opportunity to study in Russia during the summer quarter of 2018 [Ellison Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies FLAS Fellowship (Russian)] and in Latvia during the 2019-2020 academic year. These experiences taught me the value of being multi-lingual, particularly in how it helps us to bridge cultural divides. Displaying a real interest and effort to learn a language, which is a core piece of culture, can go a long way to break down barriers and create genuine cross-cultural connections. My time in Eastern Europe also deepened my appreciation for the shear diversity of this broad region from a historical, religious, and cultural standpoint, and quickly dispelled many preconceived notions of what I thought life would be like.

This perspective really became apparent to me during my time in Latvia. When I chose to study there, I hoped that this experience would diversify my knowledge of the massive Russian speaking world and allow me to compare the experience of a post-Soviet country, which joined the EU, to Russia, which had not. I quickly became aware of the complexity of Latvia’s modern geopolitical situation. Even as part of NATO and the EU, I was exposed to a diversity of viewpoints on geopolitics and became acutely aware of the strong cultural connections Latvia still shares with Russia and other former Soviet republics. Drawing on these experiences for a future career, I find that Eastern Europe quickly dispels any thoughts of simple answers or straightforward notions of “black and white” on any issue. I think that as I go forward with my career, I hope to bring a more nuanced approach to dealing with this part of the world and hope that greater cross-cultural cooperation and understanding can help future U.S. policymakers create more realistic policy in relation to this area of the world.

What is your ideal career?
C.C.: I hope to continue to broaden my knowledge of the Russian language, post-Soviet world, and cybersecurity in the hopes of working as a specialist in East European affairs.

Tell us about your reaction on receiving a Fulbright, and how it will help in your career path.
C.C.: For me, receiving a Fulbright was a huge honor, awarding not only the long hours I had spent working on the application but also all that I have done in the past four years leading up to this point. Nothing would have been possible without the endless support of my mentors, teachers, and colleagues, and so I want to give a huge thanks to them. These strong connections are really the thing I treasure the most from my time in the Jackson School. I am excited to be able to broaden my expertise in the region and be able to improve my Russian language proficiency.

What advice do you have for students considering a Jackson School major?
C.C.: I think that there are three important things that are valuable when considering a Jackson school major. First, think about a region of the world you would like to study, including a language native to at least a part of that region. The core Jackson School courses will give you a broad understanding of international affairs globally, but what I found to be the most rewarding was really diving deep into a language and culture that interested me. Second, look for opportunities to apply your language and international studies knowledge outside the classroom. This could include research, conversation tables in a foreign language, foreign film club, or looking for opportunities to work or study in that region of the world. Finally, make connections with other students and teachers. This leads to so many opportunities and builds great friendships with people that often have similar or overlapping career interests.

In addition to a Fulbright, Cunningham has received a Boren Scholarship (Latvia) 2019-2020; a Graham-Trzcinski Scholarship, Mortar Board Alumni/Tolo Foundation UW (2019-2020); a Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship in summer 2018 (Russian), and a Mary Gates Research Fellowship (Cybersecurity). He was also a Jackson School International Policy Institute Cybersecurity Fellow and Global Research Group student.