In this interview, we speak with Thea Porter, who interned with IWP professor Dr. Sara Vakhshouri from May to December 2023. Here, she shares about discovering a passion for energy security, researching these issues at IWP, and planning and participating in an executive course in Saudi Arabia.
Please tell me a little about your background and how you found this energy security internship at IWP.
I’m a student at George Washington University. I had done internships in Texas in the mayor’s office, and for summer 2023, I knew I wanted to do an internship in D.C. After interviewing with Mason Taylor at IWP, I knew instantly that this was the internship I wanted. He was so friendly. It would be so amazing to take graduate classes for free, and I was planning to research counterterrorism with Dr. Christopher Harmon – a topic I was super passionate about. I waited to accept any other internships until I heard back.
When Dr. Harmon decided to change his summer research from counterterrorism to a book on Winston Churchill, I was torn about whether to change my internship. I am passionate about the Middle East, and I ended up switching to work on energy security with Dr. Sara Vakhshouri at the last minute. It turned out to be amazing.
I realized that I loved energy security so much that I ended up changing my focus at school. I used to be in the Peace and Conflict Studies program, where I could focus on counterterrorism, but after taking two energy classes at IWP, I switched to Security Policy so that I could understand energy security more.
I realized that I loved energy security so much that I ended up changing my focus at school.
What was the internship like?
It was fun. I had a remote co-intern who was brilliant. We would research any topic that Dr. Vakhshouri brought to us. For instance, we would look into major stakeholders of electricity firms in the U.S. and Canada.
We started by building our knowledge of the field. Dr. Vakhshouri had us watch videos that she had done so we could understand some of the background. We researched two main things – energy security (for instance, how certain things work, energy security firms, and the relationships within this field), and research supporting humanitarian work.
Dr. Vakhshouri does a ton of humanitarian work in the energy realm. Our research supported her work with a small community in Namibia, where she is helping improve infrastructure and bring clean water. She brought chickens in so that people could have jobs on a chicken farm. It was awesome to see what she is doing.
We also did research on Madagascar, where she is helping bring water energy. Dr. Vakhshouri let me attend visits with ambassadors and other diplomats to discuss these projects, and I was able to see how she interacted with them.
I enjoyed the summer internship so much that I stayed on for the fall semester as well.
Did you participate in classes and other intern activities?
I took three classes during the summer and fall. In addition to two classes in energy security, I took a class in Russian security studies, which was something I wanted to learn about.
I participated in the lunch lectures for interns. I loved going to all of those. Kelley DeConciliis was one of my favorites – it is great to see a successful woman in the field. It was also helpful to see the nuances of being a female in the intelligence community. I loved talking with a former leader of covert action at the CIA.
I understand that you helped plan an executive training course on Energy Security and Energy Diplomacy in conjunction with the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center (KAPSARC) which took place in December 2023. What was it like to help plan this course?
It was cool to see how it came together. Dr. Vakhshouri was approached by KAPSARC, which wanted to offer this program. When we were preparing for this course, it was hard for me to envision what it would be like. I helped with the process of organizing some of the guest speakers, which involved some intensive planning. I accompanied Dr. Vakhshouri to a meeting in D.C. where we met the spokesperson from the Saudi Arabian embassy.
It was interesting to see how Dr. Vakhshouri works and how she planned out the classes. I helped her organize some of the course content. Because she works in the field while she teaches, she keeps a lot of information in her head. I would take notes and talk with her during the planning process. She had all the knowledge, and it was cool to learn while planning it.
She is a passionate teacher. I had taken her classes at IWP, and I was able to see the differences in the executive course.
What was the trip to Saudi Arabia like?
I was so excited to go. For the whole two weeks before, I was unsure if I would be able to go, and when I finally got on the plane, I was nervous! I didn’t know anything about what it would be like.
When I got off the plane, Dr. Vakhshouri was waiting for me. Saudi Arabia was so beautiful to fly over – I saw lots of desert and a little water. Riyadh is being rebuilt and is beautifully constructed. Everyone was so kind.
In the days before the energy security course, Dr. Vakhshouri let me accompany her and her family to see historic sites. We saw where the second kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded, we went to the gold market, we visited malls to practice Arabic, and we toured historic Riyadh.
At KAPSARC, where the executive course on energy security was offered, they have a grocery store, library, pool, and more. I had a beautiful apartment in the town center and was able to walk to the lectures. In the evenings, we could do whatever we wanted – golf, bowling, tennis.
We played some recreational soccer – I had a hard time keeping up with Dr. Vakhshouri’s daughter! We went to see Al Nassr, a professional soccer team based in Riyad.
We visited the desert one day and rose horses on the dunes, which was amazing. We ate traditional Saudi Arabian food. They grilled a lamb and a baby camel – a delicacy in Saudi Arabia. I got to try lots of different dishes. I’m normally a vegetarian, but the food there was amazing.
I got to see Saudi culture in a way I had never experienced before.
I got to see Saudi culture in a way I had never experienced before.
Do you speak Arabic?
I study Arabic in school. In Saudi Arabia, I was able to dust off this classroom Arabic. I was able to barter in Arabic, order food, etc.
Please tell us about what the executive energy course was like.
We attended these classes during the day, where Dr. Vakhshouri and the guest speakers taught.
We also did simulations. Participants in the course included actual energy ministers and other people in the field. One of the women there had just been at a huge energy conference negotiating on behalf of Saudi Arabia. In the simulations, the participants would share what they did in real life that was successful. I learned a lot by going from table to table and seeing how they worked.
The course was in English, but people would speak English and Arabic during lunch. In their presentations, the students would speak Arabic.
My fellow intern and I both got to present. I presented on Namibia and Madagascar, especially on deforestation. Viktor, the other IWP energy security intern, discussed nuclear energy in Russia.
What was your favorite thing about the course at KAPSARC?
At the end of the course, the students gave presentations. They picked a country and had to do an energy security analysis on it. They shared their recommendations and what they would change for that country to promote energy security.
It was very interesting for me to see a non-Western perspective on energy security. I am an American, and I had not been exposed to these other perspectives. I want to work in this field eventually, and I feel like I have a bit of insight on these other points of view now.
It was very interesting for me to see a non-Western perspective on energy security.
Please tell us about what you are doing this semester.
I always wanted to study abroad in college. I studied in the Middle East in high school, and I had been hoping to study in Europe.
This semester, I am studying Arabic, as well as security and war studies, at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, right in King’s Cross. I will be taking these classes until June. It’s really fun. The credits will transfer back to GW.