Graduating high school in 2020, Annabel Richter ’24, an international studies major at William & Mary, felt that many opportunities were drying up. 

“There was a lot of uncertainty about the future of studying abroad,” she said. “I felt that I could only go in one direction if I wanted to pursue cross-cultural communication in a future in foreign policy.”

Actually, the opposite happened. As a William & Mary student, Richter had the opportunity to study at the National University of Singapore thanks to a W&M Exchange Program and then intern at the NUS Middle East Institute through a Freeman Fellowship

This experience encouraged her to apply for the James C. Gaither Junior Fellowship at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a foreign policy think tank generating independent analysis of major global problems. Starting in September this year, Richter will work at the Carnegie headquarters in Washington, D.C., providing research assistance to scholars in the South Asia program.

The Gaither Fellowship is highly competitive: Around 5% of applicants are selected every year. Joining 15 more fellows selected across the United States for 2024-2025, Richter is the fifth Gaither Junior Fellow from William & Mary in only five years.

Associate Professor of Government Rani Mullen, who also serves as director for the Freeman program, noted Richter’s “focus and passion for putting her brilliant mind to work for studying increasingly important questions that one rarely sees.”

For Richter, cultivating democracy – a pillar of the university’s Vision 2026 strategic plan – means working toward an institution that is fair, free and ensures the safety of all.  

“I think the more we encourage diversity of perspectives, the better we’ll be able to settle on what democracy really looks like,” she said. “Sometimes I look at my peers and I think the W&M students really exercise their democracy well.”

So far, she has expressed her commitment in multiple forms, including her involvement in the International Relations Club, her past work in the AidData research lab and her engagement in in the 12th iteration of &MUN, a collegiate Model United Nations Conference at William & Mary.

A journey of discovery

“The diversity in my major has allowed me to take classes as varied as Buddhist philosophy, 20th century Chinese literature classes, but also government and international relations classes,” said Richter. 

Within her international studies major, she chose a concentration in Asian and Middle Eastern studies and pursued the East Asian studies track, developing what she called a distinctive way of looking at foreign policy and international relations. Thanks to her data science minor, she also gained valuable geospatial data visualization skills.

Studying abroad in Singapore – “a personal resiliency training exercise” – complemented the William & Mary offer. There, she had the opportunity to examine topical issues about her region of interest from an internal perspective, all while improving her knowledge of Mandarin Chinese.

“And then my internship experience at the Middle East Institute was incredible,” she said. There, she examined Middle Eastern affairs from the perspective of a Southeast Asian state.

While in Singapore, she also had the opportunity to travel extensively in the region.

“It was the first time I had been to any of those countries, let alone the first time I ever traveled by myself,” she said. “Singapore is very interconnected and while I was staying there, the people I met also encouraged me to travel,” she said. 

In particular, visiting Indonesia inspired her assignment as a research fellow for the Project on International Peace and Security, an undergraduate think tank based at the W&M Global Research Institute.

“Annabel’s knowledge of Indonesia politics is impressive,” said Dennis Smith, teaching professor of government, department associate chair and PIPS co-director. “The thoroughness of her research was outstanding – especially because she assembled this information through culling through local news articles.”

PIPS fellows develop policy solutions to emerging international security challenges; their research culminates with the presentation of their white papers at two spring conferences, first on campus and then in D.C.

“Being in this environment every Friday, from September until now, you’re part of this legacy of intellectual pursuit that really encourages non-standard ways of approaching problems,” said Richter, mentioning support from past PIPS fellows Nitya Labh ‘22 and Katrine Westgaard ‘23, who also secured Gaither Fellowships in their senior year. 

Improving international cooperation

Richter is looking forward to starting her Gaither Fellowship.

“It looks like it’s going to be a lot of data work, mapping information to present new perspectives for economists, for analysts, for politically focused scholars,” she said. “Again, it combines several of my passions.”

She remembers first coming to William & Mary with a strong interest in China; gradually, she chose to focus on East Asia and then Southeast Asia.

“Now I get to broaden my perspective with the South Asia program,” she said. “So, I’m really excited to continually learn and also to meet so many people whose articles I have read.”

According to the Carnegie website, opportunities for Gaither Junior Fellows include conducting research for books, co-authoring journal articles and policy papers, participating in meetings with high-level officials and organizing policy briefings.

“This is the opportunity to challenge myself, to connect with like-minded individuals, to see role models at work and to understand what my future could look like,” said Richter, whose longer-term objective is a career in the Foreign Service.

“Foreign service speaks to my ideals and to how I think we can improve international cooperation,” she said. “It really appeals to how I view face-to-face diplomacy, which Professor Marcus Holmes introduced to me in my freshman year and I have remembered ever since.”

In the future, Richter hopes to return to Southeast Asia and continue making connections between people from different backgrounds. 

“When trying to solve real-life problems, it’s important to remember that real people are involved,” said Richter, “with real people’s perspectives and their religious and cultural backgrounds.”

Current W&M students interested in applying for a Gaither Fellowship should contact the Office of Undergraduate Academic Affairs.

, Senior Research Writer