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FLAS Alumna Kelsey Hallahan on Her Path to Petroleum Markets and Persian

January 30, 2019

Kelsey Hallahan at utility-scale solar farm in the Netherlands
Kelsey Hallahan at utility-scale solar farm in the Netherlands

Kelsey Hallahan graduated from the University of Washington in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in History and Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations.  In her sophomore year at UW, she received a Foreign Language & Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship from the UW Middle East Center to support her study of Persian and the Middle East.  Kelsey was also a 2014 Naficy Scholar in Persian Language Studies.  Kelsey went on to pursue graduate studies focused on energy economics and policy, and is now a Petroleum Markets Analyst at the U.S. Energy Information Administration.  Along with Scott Montgomery, whose UW course on the geopolitics of oil changed her career trajectory, Kelsey was recently quoted in an NPR article ‘What’s Driving Low Gas Prices?  A Global Oil Glut.’  Below we catch up with Kelsey about her experiences since graduating from UW, and she offers some advice to current students.

What is your current job?  What do you do there?  What do you like about it?

I’m currently a petroleum markets analyst at the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), which is the non-political data and statistical wing of the U.S. Department of Energy. I monitor what is going on in oil markets, from supply and demand to prices, and translate what I see into content for our Today in Energy and This Week in Petroleum publications. (Both are free and available to the public on the website.) I was an avid reader of these publications when I was a student, and it never stops amazing me that I now contribute to them!

Where do you live?  What do you like about it?

I live in Washington, D.C. I love how international our nation’s capital is! Many District residents have lived overseas and speak multiple languages. For example, my three housemates have collectively studied Estonian, Portuguese, Swedish, Tajik, Spanish, Korean, and Italian.

Kelsey Hallahan speaking in front of industry executives at an international case competition

Kelsey Hallahan speaking in front of industry executives at an international case competitionKelsey Hallahan

How did you decide on your career path?  How did you become interested in energy and Persian?

When I started at University of Washington as a freshman, I knew I wanted an international career but was fuzzy on the how or what.  After studying Persian in Tajikistan as a NSLI-Y Scholar the summer after my senior year of high school, I decided I wanted to focus on the Middle East and Persian-speaking countries particularly.

For my first three years at UW, I had a fantastic Persian language teacher, Shahrzad Shams, who instilled a love of the language and a lasting appreciation of Iranian culture in me.  Receiving the FLAS fellowship as a sophomore allowed me to more deeply engage by taking a full schedule of classes on Middle Eastern politics, history, cinema, and religions. I began to see the region in a more complex way, understanding the context behind the news headlines and beyond my own experience of growing up with the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the background.

One thing that remained stubbornly unclear, however, was the full significance of crude oil to the region. I vaguely knew that the Middle East had a lot of oil, but didn’t grasp the impact of this resource wealth on both modern Middle Eastern history and current events. To better understand the region that I found so fascinating, I signed up for Professor Scott Montgomery’s “Geopolitics of Oil” course in spring quarter of my junior year. What I learned in this class completely changed my trajectory. Not only did this course give essential nuance to modern Middle Eastern history and politics for me, but I learned that crude oil makes today’s globalized economy possible. It contains the building blocks for life-saving medicines, commercial air travel, global supply chains, cars, and so many everyday products that contribute to a high quality of life.

After the “Geopolitics of Oil” course, I could not stop reading about energy. I applied for a two-year master’s program at Sciences Po in Paris, France that was entirely dedicated to energy economics and policy, taught by industry practitioners, and with a strong international approach. After studying languages at UW and overseas through FLAS, CLS, and NSLI-Y, the fact that I didn’t speak French and had never been to France did not stop me. I knew that I had the skills and experience to lean into the natural discomfort of being foreign. I knew it was okay to make mistakes, and how important it is keep trying and be able to laugh at yourself!

Are there specific lessons you learned in your pursuit of a career in the energy sector?

 I learned that quantitative skills are very important in this field. Language and area studies equip students with crucially important tools: strong critical thinking skills, confidence in communicating to different audiences, and the ability to synthesize difficult concepts. However, the fact that I hadn’t taken calculus was an obstacle to learning energy economics in graduate school.  In our first class, everyone furiously took notes while I sat motionless, stunned by how little I understood. To catch up, I watched online math tutorials at night and asked for help from my classmates.  I think that is the second lesson – it can be scary to admit that you don’t know something and need help, but that is often the prerequisite to learning something new.

What do you hope to achieve in your career?

I hope to one day use my energy expertise, Persian language skills, and Iranian cultural competency to help normalize relations between Iran and the United States. That sounds like a tall order, but hear me out!  Iran holds some of the world’s largest deposits of crude oil and natural gas, but is held back from more fully developing these resources by U.S. sanctions and access to technology and financing.  Should we reach a point in time where the United States honors our multilateral treaty with Iran and relations between our two countries begin to thaw, energy is an area that is full of diplomatic potential.

Do you have advice for current students interested in working in your field?

If you are not studying engineering, learn the fundamentals of how processes work and not just their impacts. Supporting your passion and subject knowledge with technical understanding is vital to people taking you seriously in this field.

Seek out mentors – you will be shocked at how willing people are to share their experiences and advice with you!

Kelsey Hallahan standing on a natural gas platform just south of the Arctic Circle in Yamalo-Nenets Province, Russia

Kelsey Hallahan standing on a natural gas platform just south of the Arctic Circle in Yamalo-Nenets Province, RussiaKelsey Hallahan

How did receipt of the FLAS fellowship impact you?  How did the studies you undertook on the FLAS impact you?

 Receiving the FLAS fellowship as a sophomore had an enormous impact on me. My family had some financial difficulties during this time, and the FLAS tuition award and stipend allowed me to concentrate on my studies rather than worry about paying for school. Without the course selection guidance of the FLAS coordinator, Robyn Davis, I might not have become curious about the role of crude oil in the Middle East and wouldn’t be on the path I am on today. It also introduced me to other FLAS fellows whose passion and knowledge about their languages and regional specialties inspired and encouraged me.

 You have studied in various places in the world; do you have a favorite story from those experiences?

 Studying energy has led to some interesting adventures! In 2017, I traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia to compete in an international case competition on natural gas market strategy. Because of the political tensions between the United States and Russia, no U.S. energy companies sponsored a team for the competition. As a result, I competed as a member of the French national team. I was actually the only American or native English speaker at the competition, which led people later to think of me as “that French girl with the really impressive American accent!”

My team’s first place finish in the competition led to an all-expenses-paid tour of energy infrastructure and company headquarters across Europe! We traveled to the Siberian gas fields in the Russian Arctic, natural gas storage salt caverns in Germany, a solar farm in the Netherlands, and an oil and gas trading floor in Paris, France.

If I’m being honest, I was terrified to go to Russia. We read in the news seemingly all the time about hostile governments who imprison visiting Americans for “espionage” as a negotiating tool or punishment for American policy. Lost in that fear, however, was the lesson I have learned over and over again in my travels: people are people everywhere. I met such warm, kind Russian people and ended up having a great time. Governments might have disagreements, but there is always the potential for people to find common ground.