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Alumna Abroad

A Q&A with Kira Allmann '10

Alumna Abroad
Kira produces and hosts two podcast series at the University of Oxford:
“RightsUp” for the Oxford Human Rights Hub and “The Conversationalist” for
the Constructing Scientific Communities Project. Photo courtesy Kira Allmannea.

Where were you born?

New York, New York (yes, right in Manhattan, the city that never sleeps!)

Where do you live now?
Oxford, United Kingdom (this is a city that does sleep)
Why did you choose to attend William & Mary?
Well, my family had moved to Williamsburg while I was in middle school, so I actually had very little interest in attending William and Mary – solely because it was so close to ‘home.’ I think my parents would say that basically from the time I could read, I was always dreaming of far-flung places and adventures. I wanted to go somewhere farther afield – I wanted to write a totally new story for myself.
But it was a chance encounter with Mike Tierney, a government professor at W&M, which suddenly changed my entire outlook on the College. I had been volunteering as a high school student for John McGlennon’s re-election campaign for the James City County Board of Supervisors (John McGlennon, of course, is also a W&M government professor), and on Election Day, I was stationed at Clara Byrd Baker Elementary School to hand out electoral information. Mike Tierney was assigned to be my co-volunteer. We talked for the entire morning, with Mike asking loads of probing questions about my interests and goals. He asked me where I was applying to college, and I told him about W&M and my intention to go somewhere out of state. When our shift was over, he said he thought I should go to W&M. “I’m not just saying this,” I remember him saying. I asked why. He said that I could go anywhere and probably have a great time and learn a lot, but at W&M, I could do impactful, original research alongside professors who didn’t have graduate students to do that kind of work. He said he hired students like me all the time. I wouldn’t find a comparable opportunity anywhere else, he told me, and he said he thought I would love it.
He must have made a pretty compelling case because it really changed my view of W&M. Perhaps it was hearing these things directly from a professor at the College, perhaps it was because I felt like he had really listened to me and my interests (and aversion to staying near home) and made this recommendation based on what he heard, but after that conversation, I truly believed W&M did have something unique to offer. And Mike was totally right. I’m so glad he listened to me, and that I, in turn, listened to him. I wouldn’t trade my W&M experience for anything.
What was/were your major(s)?
Government and Linguistics
Did you have a favorite course and/or professor while you were at W&M?
It’s very difficult to narrow down to a single favorite anything from W&M, but I’d have to say that the professor who probably had the greatest positive influence on my time at W&M (and beyond) was Ron Rapoport, who brought me on as a research assistant as a wide-eyed freshman and gave me the opportunity to do original research in politics. I worked with Ron and Dan Maliniak (who also deserves a massive shout-out here for being an incredibly inspiring research collaborator and mentor) for several years, and it introduced me to academic work in a hands-on way. But I also want to mention my Linguistics advisor, Ann Reed, Anne Charity, another Linguistics professor of mine, and Mike Tierney– all of whom really energized and inspired me.
My favorite course was probably Meaning & Understanding, a linguistics class on the history of linguistic thought, taught by Tolly Taylor. I absolutely loved that class. I actually looked forward to writing every essay, and while I don’t remember all of the content (I regret to say) all these years later, I do remember that feeling of wanting to learn more, read the next week’s readings, write the next paper.
I also want to mention my Geology 101 class – I can’t remember what it was actually called now – but it was taught by Chuck Bailey. This was one of my GERs, and let’s be real, I was never going to be a geologist, but that class was surprisingly exciting and interesting. Chuck did a brilliant job of making it interesting to even the most die-hard social scientist (like me). Chuck did an impressive job of managing a 200+ person class, and I still remember that. He always had time for my questions (and there were many – again, I’m not a geologist), and he actually learned most of our names. That class has remained the gold standard in lecturing for me.
Do you have a favorite memory of your time at W&M?
I’d have to say one definite favorite is Milkshake Mondays: in my freshman year, some friends (who were upperclassmen) hosted an evening event in their flat every Monday night, where they made homemade milkshakes, and we listened to music and chatted about life. It was a very low-key kind of event, but it was something that really lifted the mood of your typical Monday. It also introduced me to a sense of community at W&M that I would come to recognize more widely (and contribute to myself). It was a come-as-you-are kind of affair, and I also love ice cream and milkshakes, so that didn’t hurt either.
When were you last on campus?
One advantage of having a family that lives in Williamsburg is that I get to visit campus often! And now, I serve as a member of the Reves Center Advisory Board, so I come back to campus for a meeting once a year. I’ll be there in November this year.
Have you stayed in touch with classmates or other alumni?
Yes – I’ve stayed in touch with many classmates, who remain my close friends, and also with professors who really shaped my undergraduate experience. I think it’s perhaps when you leave that you recognize what ‘community’ means at W&M. It’s not just a catchy word for admissions brochures (though it’s that, too). It’s truly part of the culture of the place. I’ve even become closer with some W&M students who were not close friends while we were on campus but became very good friends later on. Friendships ebb and flow (it’s the nature of these things), especially when you don’t have the physical space of campus bringing you together, but my W&M community – new and old - continues to play a central part in my life.
How do you think your experience at W&M has affected your life and decisions you’ve made?
Undergrad is such a critical juncture in the transition from adolescence to adulthood – I’m not sure we know what we’re in for when we set foot on campus on Move-In Day. I think W&M has probably affected my entire life and almost every decision I’ve made in the sense that I left W&M a slightly different person than I was when I started there. We grow up a little bit at university, and we invariably take that transformation with us.
One way, broadly speaking, in which W&M has affected my life is that it made me very aware of just how many people help us get where we’re going. I’m not sure, for instance, I would have entertained the possibility of pursuing a PhD if I hadn’t had professors (like Ron Rapoport and others) encourage me to do research as an undergraduate. I’m not sure I would have been able to study Arabic in Morocco if not for the generosity of the Critchfield scholarship. There’s an entire community of people who have helped me get where I am today, whether actively or by example, and I try to pay that forward in my own academic and professional life. Sometimes my W&M experience reminds me to look for advice and insight when I need it. Sometimes it reminds me to lend a hand to someone else who needs some encouragement or support. No matter what I do, I try to hold the door open for someone else who might follow behind me because so many doors were held open for me.
Did you study abroad as an undergraduate?
Yes! I had a number of experiences abroad. W&M offered me my very first opportunity to go abroad – I had never left the U.S. before. I participated in the inaugural W&M Freshman Summer in Scotland program the summer before my freshman year, where we studied at the University of St Andrews.
I studied Arabic for a summer at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco (on a Critchfield scholarship).
I interned at the U.S. Mission to NATO in the Public Affairs department, where I unexpectedly wound up taking on the responsibilities of a full-time employee who had recently left the State Department. That was a fast-paced and exciting experience.
Do you think international experience as a student is helpful in future life and career?
Absolutely. Yes. Yes. Yes. It is an important catalyst in developing a kind of universal empathy toward others and an essential humility in reference to our position within the wider world.
We live in an increasingly interconnected world. Advances in technology, transport, medicine, finance, and other realms of life will make our international interdependencies only more complex and nuanced as time goes on. This reality opens up incredible possibilities and it also inspires great fears. We see this playing out in politics at home and abroad; we see leaders turning inward and attempting to shut the world out in response to real, perceived, and – as often happens in the clutches of fear – fabricated insecurities and threats. Insularity is simply not a viable option as a nation or as individuals, so how do we cope with this inevitable global interconnectivity? The answer is: learn about the world. Be part of it.
Global experience can result in real, quantifiable skills, like knowledge of a foreign language. But it is perhaps in its less quantifiable benefits that it holds the greatest power and influence over our lives and careers. It introduces us to something different, perhaps something challenging or uncomfortable, and in so doing, it tests the limits of what we know and shows us the real effect of our inherent biases (we all have them).
You were only the 6th W&M student to be selected as a Rhodes Scholar. What motivated you to apply? Did it turn out the way you expected?
Well, no one expects to get a Rhodes Scholarship. (At least, I would hope not! I certainly didn’t.) I applied because I wanted to do some graduate education abroad, and I was interested in a number of the courses available at Oxford. Then, I was encouraged by my academic advisors and the Charles Center (Joel Schwartz and Lisa Grimes) to apply. That really made the difference – it wasn’t really on my radar; I had never met a Rhodes Scholar before becoming one myself, so it wasn’t something I had ever considered aspiring to. Other people saw some potential in me (I suppose!), and it gave me the essential push to give it a go.
Having studied Arabic language at W&M during all four years there, I wanted to study the Middle East more comprehensively, and I was particularly interested in a non-American perspective on the region. When I applied, the scholarship seemed like a means to an end for me – it was funding, which I needed if I were to pursue graduate education. Of course, the Rhodes is so much more than a means to an end, and at some point in the application process, this really dawned on me. It is life-changing and life-shaping in ways that you can’t possibly expect. For one thing, I intended to come to Oxford for a Master’s and return to the U.S. after two years, and I stayed for a PhD! Ultimately, I completed an MPhil (Master’s) in Modern Middle Eastern Studies and a DPhil (PhD) in Oriental Studies (Islamic World).
For me, the value of the Rhodes Scholarship and my Oxford education is that they taught me how to think, and – perhaps most importantly – gave me the space and time to think. That’s a luxury. If you asked me when I expected to get out of this when I boarded the plane to London in 2010, I probably would have said, ‘a degree.’ I knew I would learn things, but I assumed that graduate school wouldn’t be much different from undergrad. I was mistaken there! Undergrad is the carnival of ideas – constant stimulation, occasional confusion, frequent revelation, energy, noise, knowledge. It starts too soon and goes by too fast. Graduate school (especially the doctorate) is a slow Sunday afternoon, light streaming through the window and a warm cup of tea. It brings its own kind of intellectual chaos, too. But it’s only when you’re sitting there, the tea getting cold, that you realize you needed that time, away from the carnival, to really understand what it taught you.
There are other ways in which my time as a Rhodes Scholar were unexpected. I came to Oxford wanting to study mobile phone use among political activists in the Middle East, and halfway through my first year here, the Arab Spring erupted. It completely changed the shape and trajectory of my research and was one of the leading factors compelling me to stay for the PhD. I wound up looking at all kinds of technologically mediated activism and the complexities of online-offline politics and social movements. Much of the research I did then (and the findings I was able to compile) would be not be possible now, due to the changing security situation in the region and Egypt, where I did my research. I’m still in awe of how dramatically Egypt changed over the course of my study. Studying the Arab Spring taught me a lot about how the world works, going far beyond regional politics.
What career path(s) have you pursued?
I just completed my doctorate in Middle Eastern studies last year, so I’ve been resident in the ivory tower, peering out, for a while. If all these years of thinking have taught me anything, it’s that you can only really see the path you’ve traveled – not so much the one that lies ahead. I can tell you how I got here, but where I’m going is (I’m delighted to say) uncharted territory. Right now, I work broadly in the field of academic public engagement. I translate academic work into something comprehensible and relevant to a broader audience, and I love it. As I came to the end of my doctorate, I knew I wanted to do something that pulled the different threads of my experiences together – something creative, something outward-looking. So, now I produce original podcasts, films, events, and other content on behalf of research groups and teams for an audience of non-specialists. I’m the Communications Director at the Oxford Human Rights Hub, and I also work freelance for the University of Oxford on other projects.
In thinking about a career, I want to be able to think independently and outside of the box and I want to be engaged in problem-solving. I believe in the importance of human rights, perhaps more now than I ever did before working on the Arab Spring, and I believe in the importance of connecting the work of academics to the work of practitioners, policy-makers, and all people. At the Oxford Human Rights Hub, we often say that human rights are for everyone, not just a few elite academics or barristers. Living and working abroad has made me increasingly aware of the universality of human experience and also the striking disparity in rights, protections, and quality of life for people in different contexts. If I’m working to address or communicate or understand that disparity on any level, I feel like that’s worthwhile.
Do you have any current projects/passions you’d like to share?
In 2015, I co-created a magazine-style podcast series for the Oxford Human Rights Hub on contemporary human rights issues, which I still produce now. It was my first experience producing audio programs from start to finish (from scripting to interviewing to post-production), and since then, I’ve become a huge advocate of academic podcasting that goes beyond the traditional lecture or seminar recording. I now produce and host two podcast series at the University of Oxford (RightsUp for the Oxford Human Rights Hub) and The Conversationalist (for the Constructing Scientific Communities Project), and I regularly consult and handle post-production for other university podcasts. I’m building up my audio production skills and learning a lot. The main appeal of podcasting to me is that it makes information accessible for free, on the go. Anyone, anywhere can take a podcast with them, and it taps into a different part of the brain. Listening is such a valuable skill to cultivate and nurture, but we don’t get to do it as often as we did… perhaps during university lectures (who would have thought we’d miss those!).
Do you have any advice for current students?
Go abroad if you can!
Don’t just answer questions (on exams, in essays, etc.); ask them. Ask hard ones.
Talk to your professors, even the ones who intimidate you – especially the ones who intimidate you.
Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. Never, ever be the smartest person in the room. (Also: if you think you are, you probably aren’t.)
Is there any valuable advice you’ve received or wished you’d received?
Someone once told me that to do a PhD, you have to have a question you really want to answer. On days when everything just seems tedious, pointless, methodical… that question will drive you onward. That question will get you through the inevitable moments of frustration, boredom, and self-doubt. I think this is definitely true for the PhD.
But I think that it can also motivate your entire education, and I wish I had thought more about mine in this way. Every class you enroll in – ask yourself: what is the question you hope this class will answer? What do you hope this class will help you understand? It’s a tall order to expect all of your education to be revelatory or exciting. But if you have something you want to know, that can be your compass when you lose your way. It’s true in professional life as well. In every job, ask what do you hope it will teach you? What do you want to know when you finish it? I try to ask myself these questions all the time to stay focused and motivated.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I feel like I’ve taken W&M with me wherever I’ve gone since I’ve left. Or, has it just followed me? I graduate (with my doctorate) at the end of September, and it will be the third time (!) that I’ll be graduating in a Christopher Wren building. At W&M, the Government department held its graduation at the famous Wren Building on campus, and at Oxford, we graduate in the Sheldonian, designed by Wren as well!