In September, we spoke with Greta Downey (B.A. International Studies 2023), who since graduating in June, has interned with the Office of Public Engagement at the White House and currently works in threat intelligence at Control Risks, a global risk consultancy firm based in D.C. She is also a senior cybersecurity researcher at the Jackson School’s International Policy Institute with faculty Jessica Beyer.
Backstory. When Greta was applying to colleges, she knew she wanted something new. Before getting into the University of Washington, Greta, who grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, had never much been to the West Coast. She also knew she wanted to be in the social sciences – plus a university with a really good study abroad program. Growing up with gay parents, Greta says her family was always involved in advocacy and fighting for their rights. Being interested in history, advocacy and policy for a long time, combined with her love of travel, she found that the Jackson School was a combination of all of these.
“Learning about the way the world works, the way people and cultures are, informing policy, getting things done at an international level and exploring different ways of understanding the world, it made the most sense to major at the Jackson School, especially with the specializations, such as foreign policy, diplomacy, peace and security,” Greta said. “That was really attractive, and what I was passionate about. I loved meeting others and their perspective of others of the U.S. in the world.”
The goal of majoring in International Studies. Greta loved the combination of the general Jackson School degree – the requirements, history, current events, and the chance to specialize in foreign policy, peace and security. “It set me up for success in a future I wasn’t sure about it,” she said. “It gave me a really incredible foundation post-graduation for a career.” For Greta, this especially came together with a course in international negotiation with Center for West European Studies faculty Dean LaRue, an introductory cybersecurity class with Jackson School faculty Jessica Beyer, and then by participating in the Jackson School’s Donald C. Hellmann Task Force Program focusing on social media content moderation, law and free speech, again led by Jessica Beyer.
“The Jackson School general major built the foundation I had wanted since a freshman. The degree makes you competitive, including for The White House, Department of Homeland Security, the private sector, and so much more. If this is what you want to do, this degree will serve you well,” she said.
The Jackson School as a springboard for discovering (and working in) the world. In her studies, Greta became increasingly interested in cyberattack issues and national security. This led to her interning with the Pacific Northwest branch of Homeland Security Investigations and Blue Wave Political Partners, all before graduation. She also discovered her passion for the intersection of international political economy and religion, which was fulfilled by the Peace and Security track at the Jackson School.
“I loved learning how to understand the world,” she said. “To learn about religious organizations and their economic underpinnings, the way they create incentives to join and stay, as well as the more subtle way they influence political behavior, was so fascinating to me and played a role in what I later researched as a Jackson School Cybersecurity Fellow.”
The Jackson School also makes it easy to study abroad with its program setup, she said. In her junior year, Greta studied abroad at University College London.
In her senior year, taking the cybersecurity class and Task Force, followed by becoming a Jackson School International Policy Institute Cybersecurity Fellow in Spring 2023, introduced her to classmates who were likeminded but pushed her out of her comfort zone. “Different niche interests were reflected in our research,” she said. “It allowed for specialization in what can feel like a broad degree. And cybersecurity is what I do now in my career.”
“Doing a degree at the Jackson School with the non-technical side of cybersecurity has made my applications to jobs more powerful. The Jackson School has so many resources to specialize. There’s something for everyone, and finding cybersecurity made me more confident.”
Gaining practical skills for a career. For Greta, succinctly writing about complicated topics in a digestible way has been a proven skill set. “In the Jackson School, you become a great writer, researcher and can analyze long texts. In courses like Task Force, you come up, in theory, with real solutions. We had to work to form policy. Everyone learns how to write well.” In the School’s Seminars in Public Writing, where she studied advanced market economies, she had to write digestible information to an everyday person, such as in the format of a newspaper article and podcast. It was one of the best classes she took, she said.
Looking back, achievements as a Jackson School major. To watch Task Force come to fruition and all the hard work – including publication credit – is huge to be able to point to that, says Greta. On the Cybersecurity Fellowship, she noted: “Building that confidence, that specialization – cemented into what I wanted to do in my future.” The opportunities the major provided, and connection with a professor, have defined her career. “I’m proud of all the work – and tears – I put into the degree,” she says. “The culmination of all the skills I learned, and understanding I’m good enough to be a senior researcher on my current project – to be a collaborator – not a student.” All the research, time and energy and skills of writing, analysis and reading made it possible to come to this point, she said.
Advice to prospective International Studies majors. Greta recommends: “Do your research. Ask your professors about different opportunities in the Jackson School. It can be overwhelming. Learn about what the degree can give you, and what you can specialize in. There are so many different avenues. Don’t limit yourself. UW forces you to be self-sufficient. Talk to other students, upper classmates. Don’t wait till senior year. Take advantage of the UW.”
Next steps. Greta would love to be at the Central Intelligence Agency or National Security Agency doing threat intelligence. She even would like to consider combining her passions for sports or entertainment with threat intelligence: “I would never have that idea if I hadn’t done cybersecurity during senior year. I don’t have to be just one thing. I couldn’t imagine anything better!”