We reached out to Nicole Smolinske, a 2016 alumna of the MIRS-SEA program, to discuss her career after studying at U-M. Prior to studying at U-M, she earned her BA at Washington State University with majors in political science, philosophy pre-law, and Asian studies. She currently works as a program manager for the US Department of State where she focuses on the Lower Mekong Initiative programming. Nicole has also worked for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the International Republican Institute, Pacific Forum CSIS, and the Boren Forum.
How did the Boren Fellowship, awarded by the National Security Education Program (NSEP), advance your research, interest, and expertise in SEA studies?
The Boren Fellowship has been very influential to my studies and career. My adviser, John Ciorciari, told me that master's students don't usually get that kind of opportunity and told me to take full advantage of it. It was encouraging that the program let me leave for half of my MA program to gain in-country experience in Northern Thailand. CSEAS was always supportive about giving students a non-traditional experience; I like to refer to it as a "choose your own adventure" since you get to build your own program and frame your academic experience.
The Boren Fellowship gave me a lot of opportunities as a graduate student and paved the way for my career in Washington, DC. Boren has been very helpful in providing professional development opportunities and a network of national security professionals. I serve as the 2020 President of the Boren Forum Board of Directors, the alumni association for Boren Scholars and Fellows. Previously, I served as the Vice President in 2018 and 2019.
Describe your current work as Program Manager at the US Department of State. What does it typically entail?
I'm currently working at the US Department of State in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Office of Multilateral Affairs. My team focuses on the Mekong region (Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam). Specifically, we work on programming foreign assistance on water, energy, and food security and the environment; connectivity; education; health; and women’s empowerment associated with the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI). LMI works in supporting growth throughout the Mekong and strengthens partnerships within the area. I also work on the Third Country Training Program (TCTP), a partnership with Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. TCTP is a joint training program that brings together all of ASEAN plus Timor-Leste for targeted capacity-building training activities on a wide variety of topics. Although I'm not going anywhere right now due to the pandemic, I hope my work brings me back to Southeast Asia soon!
How do your SEAS expertise and training make a difference in the work you do at the State Department?
I wanted a deep dive into the region for my master’s coursework. SEAS was the perfect program for me to combine regional expertise and tap into the high caliber programs offered at U-M. In doing so, I took a variety of courses in subjects such as public policy, anthropology, and sociology. This variety of coursework broadened my understanding of the region and helped me think differently about the policy questions I face in DC. The professors and courses at U-M have helped me craft better arguments and gave me a different way of viewing global problems.
Please share some highlights of your time as a Boren Fellow in Chiang Mai.
I had the opportunity to work with the Migrant Assistance Program (MAP Foundation) while in Chiang Mai. MAP helped me with interviews for my master's thesis (I conducted 50 with Shan migrant workers throughout Chiang Mai province) and provided insight into challenges faced by migrants. Through these experiences, I learned more about the issues and asked better interview questions, which made my thesis more persuasive. Living in Thailand as a Boren Fellow allowed me to practice my Thai language skills every day. I was enrolled in language tutoring, but the interactions in my daily life helped improve my language skills the most.
What advice do you have for students who are interested in competitive fellowships for SEA studies?
When it comes to applying to fellowships or scholarships, go for it! It might be a lot of work to apply, but when you hear "yes," it's such a fantastic opportunity. If you are not successful after your first application, learn from that experience and try again next year. My advice would be to use all of U-M's resources like the fellowship office and the Sweetland Center for Writing. Also, talk to your professors! As a student, you're in a unique position to travel and apply for international fellowships. Take advantage of the time and resources available to you as a student for study abroad.