Learning Lao, Cultivating Change: Suzie Bae ’20 pursues passions in international relations, student-run Conduct Council

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Bae spent the summer in Laos working for the non-profit Village Focus International, where she worked on research and communications for rural villages. COURTESY PHOTO / Suzie Bae

Through summer internships in Southeast Asia and several extracurricular involvements on campus, Suzie Bae ’20 has spent three years at the College of William and Mary branching out and exploring a diverse set of professional and personal opportunities. Now, as she stands on the precipice of her impending graduation in May 2020, Bae is eager to translate her experiences in Williamsburg and abroad to the next chapter of her life. 

In addition to being an active member of the College’s International Relations Club and a student representative on the Conduct Council, Bae’s coursework in international relations has propelled her to multiple unique experiences, including an internship in Laos, where she worked on research and communications for Village Focus International, a Laotian non-profit organization. 

VFI facilitates the empowerment of rural villages throughout Laos, and the organization employs interns from the College each summer through the auspices of the Freeman Fellowship. Although Bae found out about VFI coincidentally, the initiative piqued her interest, and its work was compelling enough that she decided to apply for the fellowship as a first-year student. 

“I found out about the fellowship through a class that I was taking, in GRI with David Trichler, and the TA at the time became a really good mentor and adviser of mine and she recommended I apply for the fellowship,” Bae said. “After she talked a little bit about the work that was being done at VFI, I decided to apply, and then I … found out that I got in, and that’s where it went from there.” 

While Bae does not plan to work in either research or communications post-graduation, her work at VFI provided her with valuable skills and experiences that she has since incorporated into her personal and professional lives.   

One of her fondest memories in Laos was born from an early obstacle. Many of her coworkers spoke little English, and since they predominantly spoke Lao in the workplace, Bae eventually sought out individualized tutoring to strengthen her communicative abilities. Her tutor — a middle-aged woman born in Laos who wanted to become an English teacher — ultimately became a pivotal relationship that allowed her to forge closer relationships with her co-workers.  

“The most surprising part of the fellowship experience was that I had not expected for the majority of the organization to speak only Lao, so I wasn’t prepared for it at all going in, but after experiencing it for a few days I decided to find private tutoring lessons,” Bae said.

“The most surprising part of the fellowship experience was that I had not expected for the majority of the organization to speak only Lao, so I wasn’t prepared for it at all going in, but after experiencing it for a few days I decided to find private tutoring lessons,” Bae said. “ … We met every week and just did casual Lao lessons.” 

Returning to Williamsburg with a renewed passion for hard work and the basics of Lao under her belt, Bae immersed herself further in International Relations Club and served as the chief of staff for the club’s competitive collegiate conference in April 2019. This job required her to adeptly manage the needs of the conference’s 100+ person staff, and she ensured that everything went smoothly throughout the conference’s four days. Bae viewed working closely alongside the rest of the conference’s executive Secretariat as a vital exercise in teamwork and leadership, specifically when handling such complicated, multi-faceted conferences. 

“Since the Secretariat is comprised of people who are specializing in parts of the conference … being able to communicate with people who are unique in their focuses but who are coming in with different skillsets and experiences in the club helps a lot with the teamwork aspect and of course, ties in with the communication aspect too,” Bae said. 

While working in International Relations Club has showcased her agile communicative skills, Bae indicated that the community of the club has been an important component of her life on campus, specifically because of the ability to deliver an impressive final product on conference weekend.  

“Recognizing that all of us are trying to make conference weekend a great one is a similar goal that we share, and it’s something that drove a lot of that teamwork and communication process,” Bae said. 

These commitments have been personally significant for Bae, but reflecting upon a distinguished record of involvement at the College, she views her time on the student-run Undergraduate Student Conduct Council as her most important contribution to the campus community. 

“I confidently say that Conduct Council is my only involvement at William and Mary where I feel like my participation in the organization is directly making campus change,” Bae said.

“I confidently say that Conduct Council is my only involvement at William and Mary where I feel like my participation in the organization is directly making campus change,” Bae said.  

Since the College’s Community Values and Restorative Practices office gives such a high degree of autonomy in decision-making to student representatives on the Conduct Council, Bae said her involvement is a consistent, tangible reminder of the trust inherent in the College’s community. 

Among the initiatives of the Conduct Council that intend on fostering this culture, she specifically mentioned ongoing drug overdose/drunk driving education campaigns, which she hopes will further add to openness and educational improvements on campus.  

Bae’s participation in IR Club, Conduct Council and other extracurricular activities has cemented her passion for active involvement. She is eager to take on yet another responsibility this Thursday, Oct. 24, when Bae will take the oath to become an American citizen as the final step of her family’s five-year long process of obtaining U.S. citizenship. 

Bae has called the United States home for nearly 17 years and, after filing for citizenship years ago, heard back about her status in August. She is thrilled to become an American citizen so she can become even more involved in the country’s political decision making and finally cast her vote in federal and state elections.  

“It’s definitely an emotional process … it makes Thursday so incredibly important to me,” Bae said. “… I’m finally a citizen; I can actively participate in democratic processes that I’ve not been left out of, but that I’ve felt distant from, so voting for me is really big.” 

Josh Rigby contributed reporting for this article.