SIA celebrates 10th anniversary with alumni in D.C.

SIA alumni and students at the reunion in D.C.
Students and alumni celebrate at the School of International Affairs' 10th anniversary reunion in Washington, D.C. IMAGE: Joy Brathwaite

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Penn State School of International Affairs (SIA) last month celebrated the tenth anniversary of its first graduating class with an alumni reunion in Washington, D.C. More than seventy guests—a mix of alumni, current and prospective students, faculty, staff, advisory board members, and family—helped the school mark the decennary milestone with a day of special events, which included a panel discussion at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), guided tour of the National Geographic Museum, networking lunch in the city, and celebration dinner.

The event kicked off SIA’s new strategic focus to make D.C. the center of its alumni activities.

“The majority of our graduates work in the political, military, diplomatic, or international development spheres and will settle in D.C for at least part of their career,” said Scott Gartner, director and professor of international affairs. “Our focus at SIA is always on the students, from past to future, and this is about meeting our alumni where they are.”

“This is what 10 years of SIA looks like”

SIA students, alumni, faculty, staff, and guests at the celebration dinner in D.C.
SIA students, alumni, faculty, staff, and guests at the celebration dinner in D.C. IMAGE: Joy Brathwaite

The primary goal of the event was to help alumni and students of all years connect with each other. Among the guests at the celebration dinner were, among others, an alumnus of SIA’s first graduating class (Class of 2009), several of its newest alumni (Class of 2019), a handful of current second-years (Class of 2020), and even a few incoming students (Class of 2021), who will begin the master’s program in the fall.

A number of distinguished guests also took part in the anniversary events, including Ambassador Theodore Kattouf, president and CEO of AMIDEAST, SIA Advisory Board member, Penn State alumnus, and former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and to Syria; Col. Patrick Duggan, a colonel in the U.S. Special Forces who served until recently as director of cybersecurity in the National Security Council at the White House; Dr. Jenifer Smith, director of the Department of Forensic Sciences, Penn State alumna, former special agent and section chief at the FBI, and former head of the Biological Technology Center at the CIA; and Alibi Baiturin, Head of the Representative Office in the United States and Canada, "Center for International Programs," Embassy of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

Reflecting on the atmosphere at the dinner—recent graduates networking with veteran professionals, alumni reconnecting with SIA professors—Gartner compared it to multiple generations of family members coming together: “This is what 10 years of SIA looks like.”

Brian Cameron (’09), a member of the first graduating class and currently a Department of Defense officer, said he enjoyed meeting the new students and speaking to them about their career interests and appreciated the opportunity to network with other alumni.

“I was astounded by the number of alumni and their accomplishments since graduating from SIA,” Cameron said. “I would like to stay connected with SIA because of the significant impact the program will have on developing future national and international leaders and influencers.”

SIA alumnus Brian Cameron
SIA alumnus Brian Cameron ('09) at the anniversary reunion in D.C. IMAGE: Joy Brathwaite

Several other students and alumni also spoke about the importance of staying connected.

“I want to stay connected to SIA because, as a student of the program, I could not have gotten by without the help of my classmates and those before me,” said Selena M. Duvivier (’18), an AmeriCorps VISTA for the Resident Services Program at the National Housing Trust. “I believe it's reassuring and incredibly empowering to know those before you have utilized their experiences at SIA to be successful. It not only strengthens the bond Penn Staters already have, but also adds increased value to the SIA experience that you get the academic degree with the real-world experience and real-time assistance.”

SIA alumna Selena Duvivier
SIA alumna Selena Duvivier ('18) speaks with other guests at the anniversary reunion. IMAGE: Joy Brathwaite

“It was such a great experience meeting other SIA alumni and connecting with them,” said Shirin Bouzari (’19). “For me who just graduated, it was great to see where the former students are in their lives and hearing their stories and learning from their experiences.”

For current students, who will soon be entering the job market, the event also was valuable as a career-building opportunity.

“It was really exciting for me, personally, to be able to visit the IMF and meet people who work at places that I hope to be at in the future,” said Anushka Thachil, who will graduate from the program in spring 2020. “I am really thankful to all the alumni and faculty who took time off to come to the reunion, and I look forward to attending more SIA reunions.”

Honoring founding faculty

SIA founding faculty
From left: SIA Director Scott Gartner, Professor Flynt Leverett, Dr. John Kelmelis, and Ambassador Dennis Jett. IMAGE: Joy Brathwaite

As part of the celebration dinner, SIA recognized several of its founding faculty members, including Ambassador Dennis Jett, Dr. John Kelmelis—who retired in 2016—and Professor Flynt Leverett.

“For those of us who have been on the SIA faculty since the school opened its doors in 2008, it is an ongoing source of satisfaction to see how much SIA has grown, by just about any quantitative or qualitative measure one cares to cite,” Leverett said. “The founding faculty award is a tangible reminder of this growth—and of SIA's enormous potential to keep growing."

Ambassador Jett has the added distinction of having taught every single SIA student since the beginning of the program. Many past and current students have fond memories of their time in Jett’s courses, receiving valuable advice during office hours, and laughing at his dry sense of humor—which he exhibited while reflecting on the recognition.

“It was a special honor to receive a large, blue, crystal bowl in recognition of my having taught every student who has attended SIA. The only challenge is what to do with a bowl that holds seven pints of liquid. (Yes I measured. I'm a social scientist remember.) So it's too small for a bird bath and too big for a cocktail glass. (Besides, it has no handle so gripping it with both hands does not leave one free for peanuts.) It is a beautiful reminder of all the great students I have had over the years, however, and I look forward to meeting the new incoming class in August.”

Ambassador Jett award
Ambassador Dennis Jett received special recognition and an award for having taught every single SIA student since the beginning of the program. IMAGE: Joy Brathwaite

The celebration dinner, he added, was a great opportunity to reconnect with SIA alumni and hear about their career success and future plans.

“And as for the bowl, suggestions for what to do with it would be welcome.”

New alumni leadership group

SIA at the IMF
SIA students, alumni, faculty, staff, and guests visited the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as part of the anniversary reunion celebration. IMAGE: Anita Baumann

The founding faculty awards are emblematic of SIA’s success, accomplishments, and growth over the past 10 years. But the anniversary reunion was also a perfect opportunity to look ahead to the future of the program.

During the celebration dinner, SIA announced plans for the creation of a new alumni leadership group—the SIA Affiliate Program Group (APG). The school envisions the APG as a way to unite alumni; facilitate more networking among alumni, faculty, and students; and empower them with a more active role in building the stature and effectiveness of SIA.

Initial feedback has been positive.

“SIA is tremendously lucky to have dedicated alumni who are always willing to support the school,” said Rod Schultz, director of development and alumni relations. “The Affiliate Program Group will serve to organize and energize their efforts, especially in the areas of outreach, networking, and engagement with fellow alumni.”

The creation of the APG, along with the decision to make D.C. the center of alumni activities, reflects a core principle: it is the people—students, alumni, faculty, and staff—who make SIA a special program. The dedication and character of alumni and students will help make the APG a success.

“I love the environment Penn State students, alumni, and friends create at any event and how easy it is to talk with such decorated professionals and scholars,” said Matthew Detrick (’19). “You can tell they live with great humility and are truly willing to help current students and recent alumni in their career endeavors. This is why I want to stay connected to SIA, because of the people—current and past.”