By Rebeca Westmoreland
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a heroic story about a hardworking student that realized all of their dreams after years and years of failed attempts. Far from it. Rather, it’s a story about how the best international affairs school in the country, maybe even the world, set me up with a once in a lifetime opportunity that I’ll never be able to forget. When I enrolled at the University of Georgia my senior year of high school, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I knew that I liked social sciences, and I knew that if I pursued a degree in mathematics or science, I would probably fail out before having a chance to graduate, but that’s about it. That all changed when I decided to declare my major as an international affairs student during the fall of my freshman year. I began taking classes that I was interested in for the first time in my educational career. Furthermore, I was finally being introduced to careers that I could actually see myself enjoying, which was unheard of before that time.
My freshman year ended after what seemed like just a blink, and I felt as if for the first time my life had direction and purpose; as if all of the years of schooling was finally culminating into something purposeful. As my sophomore year began and I was finally able to take upper level international affairs courses, I quickly learned that I was very interested in security studies and policy, so I declared those two as my focuses. With excellent advice from my advisor (who shall remain anonymous), I enrolled in an international law course. The course focused on a wide variety of things I had never even heard of, and I was waking up every day feeling as if school was more for fun than for work.
This was when I received yet another piece of invaluable advice from my still anonymous advisor: he told me that I should pay attention to the SPIA listserv, as well as DawgLink, and keep an eye out for opportunities to apply what I was learning in class to real world experiences. This piece of advice could not possibly have been more important to my life, and I accepted it as such. After that point, every email that came through the SPIA listserv with any kind of job, internship, or volunteer opportunity, was immediately on my radar. I applied for more opportunities than I could count, and finally struck gold when I accepted a position as a Richard B. Russell Security Leadership Scholar at the Center of International Trade and Security, a think tank on campus run by some of the top nonproliferation professionals in the world. I graciously accepted the fellowship and never looked back. After a year in the program, I emerged feeling like an entirely new person. Not only was I still interested and driven in my classes, but I finally had an idea of how I could apply what I was learning into the real world. Furthermore, I had a dream to chase: Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). LANL is one of the most prestigious nuclear laboratories in the world, in charge of training every single IAEA inspector. LANL is also one of two laboratories charged with maintaining the security and safety of the remaining nuclear stockpile in the 21st century.
Upon advice from an advisor at the Center for International Trade and Security, I applied for internship after internship, and after almost 30 applications, I struck gold and was accepted as a student intern with the International Nonproliferation Export Control Program at LANL. I accepted the opportunity immediately, once again, and never looked back. The day after my last final of junior year, I packed up all of my belongings in my little Toyota Camry and headed 1,500 miles across the country, with not a single clue of what I would actually be getting into. That was in May of 2015. After just three months interning at LANL, I was offered a full-time position following my graduation in May 2016. This position was everything I had been hoping and dreaming for since deciding as a young freshman that I wanted to study international affairs. Not only was I able to learn every single day on the job, but I was also being introduced to geniuses from around the world both in nonproliferation and nuclear sciences as well. To say that my summer at LANL was the best experience of my life would be a vast understatement. When I had to leave to begin my senior year back at UGA, I did so with a solemn heart. However, thanks to SPIA, it was very bittersweet, because I now know exactly what I want to do with my life and exactly what steps to take to get there.