The Power of Saying “Hell Yes”: The Albright Effect

Five students pose for a selfie in front of the Albright Institute drop cloth background.
Image credit: Lisa Abitbol
Author  E.B. Bartels ’10
Published on 

The Albright Institute fellowship program started in January 2010, and every year, as each new cohort of 40 Albright fellows gathered for three intensive weeks of learning about international relations, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Korbel Albright ’59 would show up. She would return to campus to have tea with the fellows, provide feedback on their research and presentations, and take part in Q&A sessions. Even in 2021 and 2022, when the institute was forced to go remote due to COVID, she Zoomed in to meet with the students.

This January, the institute returned to an in-person curriculum for the first time since 2020. It was also the first Wintersession since Albright’s death in March 2022.

“I was actually in the middle of writing my application [for the Albright Institute] when I heard the news that she had passed,” said Deborah Banketa ’24, an international relations major with a history concentration who was a fellow this year. She said the Albright Institute was one of the reasons she applied to Wellesley. Banketa, an asylee from Ethiopia, said Albright “inspired me to come to Wellesley because she was also a refugee. She had the same [immigration] status as me, and I also just found out she lived in Colorado for eight years, which I did too. … I thought it was really cool that we had so many similarities.”

The Albright Institute’s new program director, Nina McKee ’16, a former Albright fellow herself, said the institute is staying faithful to the structure that was in place before Albright’s death. Students meet daily for the three weeks of Wintersession, attending guest lectures, discussing global affairs, and working in small groups on an assigned research topic that culminates in a presentation given in front of the entire cohort and the distinguished visiting professor (DVP). This year’s DVP was Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia. In keeping with Albright’s tradition, Yovanovitch listened to each group’s presentation, asked thoughtful questions, and gave feedback. During one of the final days of Wintersession, Yovanovitch also held a tea just for the Albright fellows, during which they were encouraged to ask questions about her personal and professional life.

Many of the fellows said the group presentations were both the most challenging and most rewarding part of the three weeks. “You want to pull your hair out while the group projects are happening, but it’s actually really rewarding once it is all done,” said Shantha Venugopal ’23, who is majoring in international relations with a focus on political science and peace and justice studies. The Albright program draws in “people who are used to being in leadership positions and leading the way,” said Georgia Moskiou ’24, “so you have to learn to trust other people to also take the lead sometimes and figure out how to make compromises and work together.”

Learning from their peers while diving into a brand new field is all part of the process for the Albright fellows, so the Albright staff tries to assign them to topics they don’t know much about, such as sand smuggling in India, educating Ukrainian refugees in Moldova, or digital sovereignty in Kenya. That approach fosters multidisciplinary collaboration among fellows from a variety of majors—this year’s cohort included the expected political science, international relations, and peace and justice studies majors as well as students majoring in computer science, philosophy, English, math, economics, Spanish, and psychology.

“I came into the institute very afraid and stressed, because I had this preconception that everyone was going to be secretaries of state in the making,” said Moskiou, a philosophy and English double major. “I didn’t know much about international relations and political science, and I was worried I was going to feel like an outcast. But everyone was so welcoming, and so generous with their knowledge.”

“We are all living in this world,” said Fatima Djalalova ’24, an economics and math double major. “And it is important to be educated about global events. The key motivation for me to participate [in Albright] was to expand my knowledge of international relations, political science, and history.”

“I think the big thing I learned doing Albright is accepting that sometimes I don’t know everything,” said Mikhaela Andersonn ’23, a double major in psychology and Spanish, who often had to ask her fellow fellows to clarify political science jargon. “I learned that asking for help doesn’t mean you’re not a good student, it’s good if you have questions. Collaboration with your peers and professors means being open to saying, ‘I don’t know.’”

“It doesn’t matter how little you know about a topic when you get started, as long as you continue to learn,” added Heeba Nazeer ’23, a computer science major and economics minor whose group tackled protecting LGBTQ+ rights at the 2030 FIFA World Cup. She finished her Wellesley degree in December and was grateful that the Albright program gave her one final chance to get to know new classmates. “I don’t know if we would have met outside of Albright. … I realized that I didn’t know any of them before the program,” she said. “And it was my last couple weeks on campus!”

Making connections on and off campus is at the core of the Albright Institute. For example, as part of the group project research, fellows are required to reach out to two non-Wellesley experts. Moskiou said she was absolutely terrified at first to cold-contact potential sources, and she was surprised to learn how much people want to help. “I know I’ll be a little braver from now on when I email someone or send a DM on LinkedIn,” she said.

Fellows said they will use the practical skills they learned through the program in their Wellesley careers and beyond. Djalalova said she has a better idea now of how to apply data analysis to research questions in developing nations, such as her home country of Uzbekistan. Venugopal found value in practicing her public speaking skills: “How you get people to listen to you and care about what you are saying is 90% of the game.”

And the connections don’t stop at the end of Wintersession. Last year, before taking on her current role, McKee launched a mentorship program that pairs current Albright fellows with mentors from previous Albright cohorts during the fellows’ summer internships abroad. “I found it exciting, inspiring, and hopeful to read the bios of Albright fellows, past and present, and to think about how to connect the fellows to make this bigger network,” said McKee.

Fellows raved about the guest speakers who visited campus and the previous Albright fellows who shared their experiences after Wellesley. Andersonn said being part of Albright made the Wellesley alumnae network feel like a “genuine, tangible thing I could grab onto.”

In the past, Albright would hold an “Ask Me Anything” tea with the fellows ahead of the program’s closing ceremony. This year, in her honor, Winifred “Wini” Shore Freund ’59––Albright’s closest friend from Wellesley––instead held a “Storytime with Wini” session, during which she shared stories about the secretary and their friendship.

At the closing ceremony, Lianne Quaynor ’24, an international relations major with a political science concentration, said she teared up when she got her Albright pin, which was designed specifically for the Albright Institute and is only issued to fellows who have completed the program. She said she had made “lifelong, like-minded friends” and was honored to officially be inducted into the “Albright sisterhood.”

Freund delivered a charge to the fellows during the ceremony, telling them that Albright always said “Hell yes!” to every opportunity that came her way. “In that spirit, I hope to say ‘hell yes’ to everything in life, and to take advantage of the opportunities that come up,” said Quaynor, “and most importantly, I want to continue her legacy of empowering women and making the world a better place.”