Stanford International Relations Commencement Speech by Yegina Whang ‘17

The following is a speech written by Yegina Whang, International Relations ’17, a student speaker at the International Relations (IR) diploma ceremony on June 18, 2017, at Stanford University.

As a peer advisor, I get asked on almost a weekly basis by prospective freshmen, undeclared students, and parents, “Why major in International Relations?”

When I first started the job, I’ll admit that this question was difficult for me to answer. I would have a million thoughts racing through my head. What did these people want to hear? Do I talk about the post-grad job opportunities? The flexibility of the major? Could they smell my panic and fear?

But now, after two years of answering this question, I have several different spiels I like to give depending on my mood that day. Some days, I like to talk about the research opportunities that wouldn’t have been made possible without this program.

Through the resources in IR, I was able to get a fully funded internship through our parent program at Global Studies to work at a government think tank in South Korea after my freshman year.

Not only did I get to learn valuable research skills from some of the most intelligent people who remain as my mentors today, but I also was able to experience the food, working culture, and language in Seoul first hand. How many newly minted frosh get an opportunity like that?

Other days, I like to talk about our “graduation requirement” to study and live abroad. I often tell people that if you can take a girl from SoCal to Paris, put her through ten weeks of rain, snow, and no sunlight, and yet make it the most incredible quarter of her life, that speaks for itself. And did I mention that I lived across the river from the Eiffel Tower during my entire stay?

On rare occasion, I talk about the way our major is designed to be your own and to apply that knowledge and skill set to making an impact. As a daughter of two Korean immigrants, I always wanted to learn more about South Korean history and politics, which my high school history books would dedicate maybe a paragraph to.

We all know South Korea today as a modern economic powerhouse, the “good” one compared to its northern counterpart.

But growing up, my parents had always talked about the turbulent history of the country and the authoritarian regimes that took hold in a supposedly democratic country. As I got older, I had so many questions that got more complex and could often not be answered by my parents’ anecdotes. It was amazing to come here and for the first time have courses dedicated to just the Korean War or just on U.S. foreign policy to East Asia. This served as the impetus for me to write my honors thesis on South Korea’s violations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty during the Park regime, a period my parents remember quite vividly.

I’m sure that all of you have had similar experiences that speak your decision to declare this major. But despite all these answers I could give, when people ask me, “Why IR?” the answer seems incredibly simple to me now.

Yegina Whang received her diploma from former Secretary of State and Professor of Political Science Condoleezza Rice.

It’s the people, it’s all of you sitting here today. In the last four years, your curiosity, your opinions, and your ambition have all challenged me and helped me grow in ways that I could not have imagined before coming to this campus. Before me, I see future ambassadors, lobbyists, NSA directors, chiefs of staff, Supreme Court Justices, and even the first female president of the United States.

I have just one more story of an example of the excellence of this graduating class from just this past quarter when I had the privilege to take “Challenges and Dilemmas in American Foreign Policy” with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The workload often seemed brutal: 500+ pages of reading per class session, a five-page paper every week, and a 48-hour crisis simulation at the end of the course to top it all off.

While we weren’t able to solve all of the world’s problems in those ten weeks, I heard you all address the crisis in the Middle East with more knowledge and eloquence than some of our political leaders today. I was able to learn some of the most valuable foreign policy lessons that will stay with me long after I leave this school from both inside the classroom from Dr. Rice and also outside of class from all of you.

I learned from this class and many more that we may all view the world differently, whether we are realists or constructivists or liberals. But through our classes, we have learned to see that the world is not so one-dimensional or black and white as many think.

We’re also at a school that’s obsessed with big ideas, and the social sciences are no exception. It’s sometimes so easy to get lost in them. We are fascinated with the history of governance, the economic theories behind financial phenomena, and the different cultural norms between countries. However, with the state of the world today, the concepts and case studies we learned in our classes seem more consequential and applicable than ever. After four years of taking courses with and learning from all of you, I leave Stanford knowing that the future is in good hands.

Congratulations Class of 2017, and I can’t wait to see how far you’ll go.

Fore more information about the 2017 International Relations Commencement, click here.