New Program Helps Students Navigate a Challenging Career Pathway in Security

Professor Tom Le stands with students Kaylin Kim and Ava Tiller.

What does it mean to have a career in a security-related field? What are the keys to balancing career advancement and personal life on a challenging career pathway? How do State and Defense Department personnel handle frequent moves while having a family?

Students at Pomona College can ask questions like these firsthand of women who are in the midst of advancing in their careers, thanks to the Women in Security program, directed by Tom Le, associate professor of politics. So far, students have interacted with professionals such as Grace Park, deputy director for Japan policy in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, and Courtney Beale, executive assistant to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

“It was interesting to learn not just about the political work that happens in the State Department, but also about the impact working in the foreign service can have on personal lives,” said Kaylin Kim ‘24 after hearing Beale’s presentation and learning “how she lives her everyday life.” Added Ava Tiller ’23 of interacting with Park, “It was cool to hear her perspective as someone who has moved very quickly up the ladder even though she’s quite young.”

The program, now in its second year, is not limited to women. Everyone, Le believes, can learn ways to lend support to those who face career obstacles, whether because of gender or other factors such as culture. “The idea is training people to be better at supporting each other,” says Le.

Each year, two Pomona students are also chosen as Women in Security Fellows. “It is both a networking opportunity and also a research opportunity,” says Tiller, a politics and Chinese double major and one of the 2022-23 fellows. “I had taken two classes with Professor Le and thought it would be a really good opportunity to improve my politics writing and also potentially have the opportunity to publish some politics research.”

Le has intentionally made writing a key component of the fellowship. Students are required to write op-ed pieces to send for publication, whether or not they get placed. “The point is to get them to write and then get comfortable sending their ideas out for critique,” says Le. “A lot of folks don’t do it because they don’t want to be criticized. I’m like ‘Just put it out there.’” The worst thing that could happen, he says, is they could get an answer of “No.”

Tiller, who has studied Chinese since eighth grade and is proficient in the language, is currently writing an opinion piece on the relationship between China and North Korea. Le, she says, “lets us set our own writing goals in terms of what we want to produce.”

Kim, a politics major who is also a 2022-23 fellow, says that “my current research through this fellowship is focused on South Korea. I’m looking at the current anti-feminist backlash in South Korea.” The country’s current president campaigned on anti-feminism, she notes, “so I am looking at the why behind this movement.”

Kim aims to become a specialist in Korean affairs, possibly in the U.S. Department of State someday. Tiller is considering the foreign service or a career in academia.

As part of the program, fellows are encouraged to apply for relevant external fellowships. Tiller and Kim were semi-finalists for the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation's Women’s Trilateral Youth Empowerment Program and will travel to Tokyo to meet with Japanese and American policymakers. Pomona’s Pacific Basin Institute is supporting the students by covering their travel and lodging expenses. Tiller will continue in the trilateral program as a one-year fellow, and Kim was offered another opportunity by the foundation. One strength of the program is the network that students build early in their careers, Le says.

Whatever direction they choose to pursue in their careers, the Women in Security program will equip students with a broader view of security in our highly globalized world. “If you want to understand security, you can’t just look at nuclear weapons,” says Le. “Security is the things that decrease our life chances.” And the fellows will have a deeper understanding of the choices they might face in a security-related career and greater insight into how professionals in the field are successfully navigating them in their daily lives.

Yutong Niu ’23, who is majoring in international relations and economics, says of her experience as a Women in Security fellow in 2021-22, “The opportunities to interact with and hear the career stories from female leaders in the security world were empowering. It gave me more clarity on how to navigate a professional space where women are traditionally underrepresented and continued to inspire me to build a career that is in line with my personal and professional goals.” In the summer of 2022, she interned with a New York-based hedge fund in their Asia-Pacific Investor Relations team.

Erin Puckett ’22 was also part of the first cohort of fellows. She now works as a cybersecurity consultant and helps companies strengthen their security against cyberattacks. “I went into the program knowing that I wanted to get into cybersecurity, but I was hesitant regarding how I would navigate such an environment,” she says. “The program gave me the confidence and the skills–how to sharpen my writing, how to present my arguments and how to build connections with mentors.” It was, Puckett says, “a great launching pad from college to being a full-time professional.”