It’s common to ask children what they want to be when they grow up. Answers typically range from things like pirate, superhero, or princess to doctor, veterinarian, and soldier. But Samantha Ku, political science, had a much more specific goal – she wanted to be a diplomat.
Fast-forward ten years, and the UCI student is making her childhood dream a reality. She’s studied abroad at the London School of Economics and Scotland’s University of St. Andrews where she’s honed her skills in international relations and gotten acquainted with the political climate in the United Kingdom. She’s interned at an anti-terrorism organization in Washington D.C. as part of the UCDC program, learned the ins and outs of research during her time in the Summer Undergraduate Research Program, and showcased her artistic side as a graphic designer in the UCI Career Center. She’s even passed the first section of the Foreign Service Officer Test, which all prospective diplomats must take – although most do not until they’re about a decade older than Ku. And next year, thanks in part to the David Rosten International Education and Service Scholarship and Elena B. and William R. Schonfeld Scholarship, she will be returning to Scotland for an internship with either the United Nations House Scotland or the Scottish Parliament.
It’s evident that Ku is well on her way to being an international relations power player. But for her, this next venture is just one more step toward making her 10-year-old self proud.
What made you stick with your childhood dream of being a diplomat?
I’ve wanted to be a diplomat since I was 10 years old. People always ask me why and I’ve kind of forgotten. It’s just always been that childhood dream. But I really love how quickly politics and international relations change, and I’ve always just wanted to be a part of that. It’s kind of cliché, but when I was little I wanted to save the world. And I thought that helping with something like diplomacy and government relations would be a wonderful way that I could do that.
You took the Foreign Service Officer Test as soon as you were old enough - at the age of 20. Why?
I mainly just wanted to see what they were testing on so that when I went back to school, I would know what I’d really need to focus on. I had read that it requires you to know more than just politics, and it does. My exam asked me about IT, and world history, and pop culture-type things. It’s like Jeopardy, and I just wanted to know what kinds of things I’d need to know. I actually passed, which was really weird because I remember getting the email and it said congratulations, and I was thinking “Why would they congratulate me if I failed?”
I went through the second step as well and I didn’t pass that, but I think passing the first level is quite a feat in itself. Most people don’t take it until later – I think the average age is 32.
You also participated in UCDC where you interned at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. Did that experience shape your desire to be a diplomat at all?
Working in terrorism really put my life in perspective. I worked on the Global Terrorism Database coding the consequences of terrorist attacks around the world. One moment in particular shaped my life perspective tremendously. I was given a huge block of incidents in Iraq to input. I actually kind of thought my supervisor was playing a trick on me and trying to make me do double the work because it really felt like I was repeating the same thing. It would list one market or one street and then there would be attacks day after day in the same spot. I thought it was an error. Eventually I crosschecked the dates and it wasn’t a mistake. Just every day there would be attacks, shootings, or car bombs in the same place day after day. That moment in my internship put my life in perspective. It showed me the incredible opportunities I have had growing up in California and as student at a prestigious university like UC Irvine, as well as my potential as an agent for change.
What are your plans with the two newly received scholarships?
Next year I’ll be coming back to Scotland, where they have a program called Scottish Interns. They take interns on in Scottish Parliament and recently began taking interns in the United Nations in Scotland. I’m hoping to get the U.N. position because it’s very much related to my realm of study. It focuses on conflict resolution (my minor) and nuclear non-proliferation (my senior thesis topic).
Why are scholarships like this one so valuable?
I really believe in international education. After I came home from my first study abroad trip in London, everything really did change. I knew I was in the right major and knew where I wanted to go in the future. It’s scary at first and I remember the first time I went abroad and how intimidating it was, but it really does broaden horizons and allow you live in a very multicultural environment where you meet different types of people and get different perspectives.
What are you most looking forward to about returning to Scotland next year?
This next study abroad trip will be the capstone of my education abroad at UCI. It will give me the opportunity to apply theory to practice and be a part of the inner workings of government. After studying here for years, I think I have a good understanding of the political climate Scotland is going through. It will be very interesting to come back and work in a different area and actually apply my education in a practical sense.
What is it about helping others/the world that appeals to you?
Honestly, it is a really daunting prospect, especially as you grow older. But I think we can all kind of do our part. And I’ve always wanted to do something bigger than myself. I feel like by being given these opportunities –being born in California, going to a UC, getting the chance to study abroad – I have a duty to help.
Ku was awarded $1,000 from the Rosten Scholarship to assist with the costs of travel, education, and housing abroad. The Schonfeld Scholarship is awarded to the social sciences undergraduate in the next graduating class who goes above and beyond requirements, demonstrating a strong dedication to the university community while achieving excellence in academics and extracurriculars.
—Bria Balliet, UCI School of Social Sciences