Originally from Japan, Maho Sugihara completed her undergraduate education in Tokyo before working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for two years. Now, Maho is a student in the Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy (MIP) program studying Cyber Policy and Security.
A start in diplomacy
Maho worked at the Foreign Ministry in Japan for two years. In the first year, she worked for the division focused on economic policy and relations between the United States and Japan.
In her second year, Maho served for the policy management division at the International Development Cooperation Bureau. Her job consisted primarily of ensuring that Japanese aid for developing countries is not utilized for military purposes. Another one of her responsibilities was improving the Ministry’s security measures and crisis management.
Maho said that while she still learned a lot from her first year at the Foreign Ministry, it was the second year that really gave her confidence and a sense of responsibility — “being able to be creative about what you’re doing is such an important component of being a professional in this field.”
Maho explained that, at the Foreign Ministry it is compulsory for young officials to study abroad in the country associated with their assigned language, which greatly helps them develop as a diplomat as well as an individual. For Maho, her assigned language is American English, which brought her to the United States.
For a while, she debated between schools on the east coast and Stanford, and up until one point was “99 percent sure” she was going to a school on the east coast.
“I don’t exactly know why, but in the last minute, my gut feeling told me to go to Stanford, to try out something new,” Maho said. “It might have been partly because I had studied on the east coast before, but the main reason was that I had an intuition that Stanford, and also the west coast culture, would expose me to exciting vibes and new perspectives. Now there are no regrets from me.”
West coast schools are not the traditional choice for most ministry officials in Japan, Maho explained. But when applying, she felt that Stanford reflected her interests in balancing academic theory with policymaking.
Forging a different path
Choosing her specialization was also a decision where Maho followed her instinct — she originally intended to study in the International Security specialization, the field that she had been used to.
“But being at Stanford is a really unique experience because every single day you cannot separate your life from computers in a broad sense,” Maho said. “Over time I just became interested in how cyberspace is very realistically connected to our everyday life, and on a larger scale, national security. And it also involves many questions deeply related to ethics and norms, both domestically and internationally.”
Maho had never worked extensively with cybersecurity or computer science before choosing Cyber Policy and Security as her specialization in the MIP program. She recalled a trip she had gone on in the winter to Washington, D.C. to see her colleagues who were also studying in the U.S. — most of whom were studying on the east coast.
“That was the first time I noticed that so much had changed within me,” Maho recounted. “Everyone was asking me — ‘why did you choose cybersecurity?’ But for me, it just felt like a natural choice.”
Maho also highlighted the importance of bridging the disconnect between policymaking officials and computer scientists.
“I, myself, don’t have to be and can’t be a computer scientist or a programmer.” Maho said honestly. “But the more I study cyber policy, the more I feel it’s necessary to study the technical side as well. There’s such a big difference between an official who doesn’t know or care much about the technical side versus one who does.”
In addition to her new passion for learning about cybersecurity, Maho mentioned Professor Colin Kahl, who served as a Senior Advisor to President Obama on U.S. foreign policy and national security and currently serves as Co-Director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), as someone who inspires her in her own line of work.
“Working for the government can often be tough,” Maho said. “But Professor Kahl’s knowledge and his sense of responsibility and missions are admirable; getting to listen to how he had managed such crucial moments with his team members rekindled my interest in diplomacy and really motivated me to continue my work at the Foreign Ministry [in Japan].”
An uncertain, but exciting future
After graduating from MIP, Maho will be assigned to an embassy somewhere in the world — she doesn’t know where yet.
“It could be Africa, or it could be D.C., or it could be somewhere else,” Maho said. “I’m not even sure what department I would work for.”
Depending on where a ministry official is assigned, the experience can be very different. “At a large embassy, you would get the chance to be engaged in impactful political trends and policy decisions,” she said. “But your personal responsibilities could be bigger if you were assigned to a relatively small embassy.”
To explain her interest in diplomacy, Maho drew upon her experiences as an undergraduate student in Tokyo studying international politics and engaged in extracurricular activities that exposed her to various cultural exchanges. Though she recognizes the importance of academic theory, she finds herself more drawn to learning the ways of navigating the diplomatic world and getting to know people from across the globe.
“I got several opportunities to get to know students from different parts of the world, and while [the students] were all different, if you continue to interact with them, you’re able to find common ground.”