Student spotlight: Emma Louise Leahy (MIA 2022)

Student wearing green jacket and smiling in a hall with graffiti on wall

Emma Louise Leahy is the recipient of the International Security Policy Scholarship, awarded each year to an MIA student. Check out our interview below.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m Emma, a 2022 MIA student from the United States. I grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains so I obviously love spending time outdoors, and I also spend a lot of time painting and writing. A goal of mine at the Hertie School has been to submit my writing for publication: I’ve enjoyed contributing to the Governance Post student newspaper and I’m looking forward to presenting a paper this summer at the Gulf Research Meeting, a policy conference on Arabian Peninsula studies.

Why did you choose the MIA programme and what brought you here?

Many of my fellow Hertians have eclectic personal journeys and a mix of intellectual interests, and this is exactly what led us to choose this programme - we wanted some empirical tools to tie together all of those experiences. In my case, I spent my formative years between the US and Western Europe, so I’ve always been fascinated by cultures, languages, and civilisations. Being able to communicate in seven languages allows me to step outside the box of my own worldview, to immerse myself in differing perspectives. My earliest academic passion was for the Latin language and classical studies: during secondary school I competed in the National Junior Classical League and, as the four-time US national champion, I hold the standing record for individual achievement. Classics might seem like a niche discipline, but it taught me so much about critical thinking and it helps me to think structurally about contemporary society. During university I got interested in Russia and the New East, and I had the opportunity to live in Moscow as a grantee of the US Department of Education, to research my undergraduate thesis on Russia’s post-Cold War foreign policy.

These experiences inspired me to get involved in US foreign policy. I got my start with internships in both chambers of the US Congress, then worked as an advisor for congressional affairs in the global headquarters of a major international law firm. Over the course of my legislative work I became interested in Arabian Peninsula affairs, which eventually led me to work for the foreign ministry of Saudi Arabia at its embassies in DC and in Berlin. Aside from the policy aspect, I’m really interested in how international affairs interacts with visual culture. While living in DC, I volunteered at the Smithsonian American Art Museum for three years, which taught me a lot about political meaning in contemporary visual art. I also worked for the embassy of Switzerland in the United States, where I curated and managed cultural programmes in cinema, photography, language and the culinary arts. So my background spans Europe, Eurasia, and the Middle East — three geopolitical and cultural spaces that converge around the Mediterranean. Graduate study in international affairs is the perfect way to build on my diverse experiences, each of which has inspired me and contributed to my way of seeing the world.

What was your experience applying to the International Security Policy Scholarship, and how did it help you decide to study in Berlin?

Anyone who’s interested in the future of international security should definitely apply for this scholarship. Being in Berlin at this time is an opportunity to reflect on the 30th anniversary of the end of the Cold War. A lot has changed, but a lot hasn’t. The fall of the Wall did not do much to transform nuclear security, for example. American nuclear weapons are still stationed in Europe and the US government continues to extend Cold War-era arms control agreements with Russia instead of working towards a new paradigm for peacetime. Since moving to Berlin I’ve been learning more about the city’s unique role in Cold War history. I recently read a great book by Greg Castillo, Cold War on the Home Front: The soft power of midcentury design, which examines how consumer goods and home furnishings became instruments of propaganda and counter-propaganda in divided Berlin. By learning more about Berlin’s history I also learned about the history of my own country, the United States.

What interests you about international security, and how do you plan to pursue this at the Hertie School – and afterwards?

I am interested in how great-power competition affects intermediate zones, geographical regions that are situated between the respective spheres of influence of rival power centers. We erroneously think of intermediate zones as peripheries when they are actually at the very center of geopolitical contestation. In Europe, the successor states to Yugoslavia and to the USSR constitute an intermediate zone that is regarded as a potential theatre for strategic gains by Brussels, Moscow, Washington, and, increasingly, Beijing. For my master’s thesis next year I’d like to study the intermediate zone in Europe, with emphasis on incorporating local perspectives and own stories into my research. I am interested in how the weakness of states in the intermediate zone results in a lack of consensus around national identity and public memory, which creates instability from a hard security perspective. After graduating from the Hertie School, I hope to continue my education with doctoral studies.

What were your favourite classes and most useful practical skills you’ve gained?

Last semester, I enjoyed my Global Governance: EU course with Prof. Jachtenfuchs. He introduced us to the range of theoretical frameworks for scholarship of European integration. We compared the explanatory power of these theories by taking a deep look at challenges that over the last decade have tested Europe’s cohesiveness and institutional capacity, such as the eurozone crisis, the Brexit referendum, and the refugee crisis. In terms of practical skills, I learned how to prepare a research design for a political science paper, which will be really useful for my thesis next year.

What are you looking forward to this semester?

I look forward to preparing the deep dive presentation for my International Conflict Management class with Prof. Sporrer. My group will be presenting on the historical relationship between Russia and Ukraine.

Any favourite experiences or spots in Berlin that you’d like to share with us?

The abundance of water is one surprising thing to love about Berlin: the city has more canals than Venice. During the warmer months, I enjoy swimming in the lakes that surround the city. It’s great fun to take a picnic and stay all day. Last summer my husband and I spent an afternoon floating through the heart of Berlin, along the Landwehrkanal, in an inflatable rubber boat. Our favourite area was the Admiralbrücke, in Kreuzberg, where you can even get takeaway from a floating restaurant.


You can still apply to the Master of International Affairs and the International Security Policy Scholarship by 1 May.