Born and raised in Tokyo, Japan, Kenzie Phillips, Class of ‘23, is an Undergraduate Certificate Fellow at the Notre Dame International Security Center. Already a world-traveler, Kenzie puts the International into International Security. Most recently, this includes working in Mongolia as an intern with State Department. Driven, ambitious, and adored by her cohort, we were excited to sit down with Kenzie to talk about her background and experience.
Please describe your background and why you chose Notre Dame.
I was born and raised in Tokyo. Growing up predominantly in Asia and traveling back and forth from the U.S., I was fortunate to come from a well-traveled family and see so many things, experience different cultures, and meet people from all kinds of backgrounds from a very young age.
I had never thought about Notre Dame until I was in London in 2013 and I met the women’s basketball team. They were the coolest girls ever and that’s how Notre Dame ended up on my list. When I got to campus, it took my breath away. What really sealed the deal was the Tokyo alumni group taking me, and a group of visiting Mendoza kids, out to dinner and watching the alumni mix with the current students.
What made you interested in Political Science and International Relations?
Growing up, politics and international relations were always being discussed at the dinner table. Both my parents spent more time abroad than they did in their home countries, and both speak multiple languages. So, since a young age, I knew I wanted to study international relations.
I’m what is sometimes called a TCK—third culture kid—meaning I grew up in a country neither of my parents are from. Growing up with a mix of Japanese, Chinese, American, and whatever other cultures my parents decided to throw in was very unique. As I grew older, I noticed a disconnect between my friends from different cultures and the fighting you’d see on television. One particularly harrowing memory: I was in middle school when a classmate and good friend watched as her father was beheaded by ISIS on live TV while sitting next to our Middle Eastern friend. During an emotional moment that could have ended in our Middle Eastern friend getting berated and bullied, we found compassion and mutual understanding that the fighting we saw on TV doesn’t represent the love and respect we had for each other’s cultures.
How did you find out about NDISC?
I was introduced to NDISC my first semester freshmen year and joined second semester. Coming to Notre Dame, I knew I wanted to study international relations, but when I took Introduction to IR, I realized international security was my true passion. When I joined the ND chapter of Model UN, I met Carlos (graduated 2019). When I expressed my love for studying military history and my desire to go into some type of defense work, Carlos recommended I look into NDSIC, and the rest is history.
What has been your favorite class so far?
It’s not a class, but I have loved every second of my thesis work with Professor Eugene Gholz. I’m researching cyber threats to critical infrastructures that support military missions and how they may impact decision making compared to conventional threats. This has been the hardest yet most rewarding thing I’ve done. It has been absolute honor to work with Professor Gholz: he’s incredibly brilliant, he’s been my number one supporter from Day 1, and was flexible with me while I worked in Mongolia.
Speaking of Mongolia, what did you learn from your work there and how did you bring your NDISC education to work with you?
I was a public affairs intern at the U.S. Embassy, but I was able to do projects in all the offices. Some of my highlights include visiting the U.N. peacekeepers training facilities, helping prepare for the AMB credentialing ceremony, script writing for the Marine Corps’ Toys for Tots promotional video, and sitting in on visa interviews.
I feel like people overlook how important Mongolia is to US-Asia relations. Mongolia is a democratic nation squashed in-between to autocracies—Russia and China. The human intelligence, foreign investments, national security interests, etc., flowing between the two countries through Mongolia is absolutely mind boggling. I was also in Mongolia during a very fascinating time: Russia’s forced conscript pushed thousands of young men to flee to Mongolia while China’s zero-COVID policy and push for foreign investment meant a flood of Chinese interests were coming into Mongolia.
What would you tell someone who was considering NDISC?
Do it. I would not be where I am without NDISC.
I always like to tell people that security is more than bombs and bullets. There is a security risk in every part of our life: from water security to financial risks to public relations management. NDISC is growing and evolving.
What will you do after graduation?
After graduation, I will be joining Raytheon Technologies’ Leadership Development program where I will ultimately go into defense contract negotiations. Over the past summers doing various internships, I learned that I loved the complicated yet exciting world of defense contracting.
My moon-shot goal in life is to be an ambassador (hopefully the U.S. Ambassador to China!), so I plan on joining the foreign service after obtaining my Masters.