Though typically he is the one interviewing people for his geopolitical podcast, IWP student Semaj McDowell took some time to answer our questions about his experience thus far at IWP. He told us about his interest in international politics, his internship at IWP, and how his experience as a student has led to successful job interviews and growth as a professional.
Developing an interest in foreign policy
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Semaj has been interested in politics since a young age. While growing up, he witnessed events both in his community and around the world that informed his views on equity and justice.
One of the world events that shaped his views and interests was the Arab Spring. “In 2011, I watched the Arab Spring happen through Twitter,” Semaj said. “By that time, I had established a general interest in political history. I always wanted to know—why do these people in foreign countries rebel and protest? What are they calling for? How does it relate to what we are doing in the U.S.? Watching the Arab Spring unfold, I knew that I wanted to work in foreign policy.”
Semaj also knew he wanted to pursue a career through which he could help people. “I try to live for the uplifting of other people,” Semaj said. “My grandmother told me that the number one rule in life is not self-preservation but what you do in that process of self-preservation to help others.”
Learning the foundations
Semaj began his time at IWP as a research intern in 2018 at the recommendation of a friend. His internship experience helped confirm his interest in pursuing a master’s degree at IWP.
He was initially attracted to IWP by “the concrete foundation of pragmatism—based on our founding institutions and documents—of what the U.S. is supposed to be,” he said. “Coming to IWP for an internship gave me a glimpse that this was an institution that worked along the lines of eyeglasses for someone who needs vision. You get these glasses to have a precise look at your environment. IWP does that by providing the foundations of the American founding fathers and using that background to understand and resolve problems in society.”
From the internship program to the master’s degree program
After his internship, Semaj continued working with Danielle Shover, IWP’s Director of Graduate Recruitment, and Derrick Dortch, the Director of Career Services. “I brought other GMU students to IWP open houses. The number one thing that sold me on IWP was the friendships I made with the current students and the students that had just recently graduated,” Semaj said. “I had an inclination [that I would apply for the graduate program] while I was in the internship, and I made my final decision at the end of 2019.”
Semaj sees his IWP education as “a step in the right direction in [his] course of becoming a practitioner instead of a theorist. You can have all the knowledge in the world,” he said, “but what you do with it makes a difference.”
He decided to start his podcast at the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown in March 2020. “I needed something to keep my mind going and to stay on top of my profession and knowledge,” Semaj said. “While continuing to do other work, I decided to write about my research on global events. After talking with people my age, I realized there is a need to elevate young professionals in this field so their voices can be heard. I didn’t want the spotlight to just be on me—I wanted to bring on as many people as possible to shed light on their experiences, cultures, and traditions. The hope is to share the ideas of future national security policy decisionmakers. I wanted to establish this podcast to provide a voice to people who have something to say, can back it up with facts, and are willing to have a productive dialogue with me, regardless of their political background.”
His favorite episode thus far has been on the history and current capabilities of Iran.
The impact of classes on professional goals
“My classes are reaffirming and validating my interest in geopolitics. They are allowing me to establish a comprehension of the nuances of national security. A lot of people think national security is just hard power, but there are a lot of things, even down to American infrastructure, that are part of national security,” Semaj said. “Whether it is the art of diplomacy, economic thinking, or warfare, my classes have solidified my drive to dig deeper into world politics. They have made me want to become a practitioner in this field.”
Last year, he took Dr. Sara Vakhshouri’s class on energy security, a topic he knew little about before the class. Over the summer, Dr. Vakhshouri encouraged Semaj to publish the paper he wrote for the class.
Semaj’s conversation with professors in and outside of the classroom has also helped prepare him for job interviews. “Seeing how people presented themselves at IWP helped me understand how I need to present myself as a go-getter and as someone who knows what he wants,” Semaj said. “Before the interviews, my classes helped me formulate both my responses to questions they ask and to formulate questions I can ask about the job. I used to have no idea what to ask in interviews.”
Semaj has met with success in his interviews and is now in the process of being hired at a federal contracting company, where he will work as a program analyst.*
The squeaky wheel gets the oil
Semaj sums up his experience at IWP with one word: reaffirming. “It’s an institution that operates from what it says it is meant to establish. There are a lot of institutions with selling points that may not reflect the reality of the experience. What IWP has stood for since the early 1990s and the people and networks it has produced has been reaffirming of the investment of time and dedication. I don’t see it as a chore to do grad school—I see it as part of my professional and personal development.”
Much of Semaj’s success at IWP has come from him being what he calls a “squeaky wheel.” When he was younger, his barber told him that the squeaky wheel gets the oil. Semaj says, “I see IWP as the oil and me as the squeaky wheel. I made this noise, and IWP provided me with resources, networking, faculty, friends—lifelong friends—and I can be much more productive in my field because of it.”
In addition to working with IWP Career Services Director Derrick Dortch, building relationships with peers and professors, and publishing his work, Semaj participated in two wargames at IWP: ISIS Crisis and Baltic Storm. He also recently participated in a wargame with the Naval War College and the Hoover Institution. These games have helped prepare him for future work in his field.
He said: “I see wargaming as a necessary component in my pursuit of going into political/geopolitical areas. It was helpful in making me better at creating and expressing goals.”
Advice to others
Semaj’s advice to others interested in intelligence and foreign policy is, “if this is their true calling, then seize the opportunity if it arises. If there are people on the fence, they should take the opportunity to go to IWP. If people want a place where they can grow professionally, ethically, and morally in regard to international relations and international law, then IWP is a place to take into consideration. You don’t need to go to IWP to work in D.C.; you go to IWP because you want to challenge yourself to go beyond expectations, to receive resources, and to meet people who genuinely care about your wellbeing and growth. I walked in those doors, and I was immediately welcomed, no questions asked. It was a true family feeling.”
*Update 1/5/2021: Semaj is now working as a Program Analyst III at Bennett Aerospace.