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Kerry Fellows Get a Unique View into Global Issues

John Kerry at an event in Yale SOM's Zhang Auditorium in 2017.

In 2020-21, four Yale SOM students were named Kerry Fellows, getting the chance to study with former secretary of state John Kerry as he served as a presidential climate envoy

By Karen Guzman

Each year since 2017, a select group of students from across the Yale campus has gotten the opportunity to study with former secretary of state and Yale College alumnus John Kerry  ’66. The four Yale SOM students named Kerry Fellows for the 2020-21 academic year say the fellowship was a highlight of their time at Yale.

“Secretary Kerry has played a central role in so many of the critical issues we’ve faced as a country and global community over the past 50 years,” said Jonathan Silverthorne ’21, a joint-degree graduate of Yale SOM and the Yale School of the Environment. “Having the chance to hear him talk about what happens behind the scenes really helped put the issues into a more concrete context.”

The Yale SOM students were among 26 students from across the university who were selected as 2020-21 Kerry Fellows. They took part in a seminar under the auspices of the Kerry Initiative, an interdisciplinary program that includes teaching, research, and dialogue around global issues.

Last November, weeks into the academic year, then President-Elect Joe Biden appointed Kerry to the post of presidential climate envoy. While the new appointment limited Kerry’s availability, the students said, there were also some benefits to studying with an active diplomat operating at the highest levels.

“I’m focusing on how to address climate change through finance, community engagement, and policy,” said Silverthorne. “President Biden announced Kerry’s new role shortly after our first meeting, and it’s been particularly meaningful to me to support his work as America’s first special climate envoy.”

During the fellowship, Silverthorne said he researched and wrote about issues including the recent Texas energy blackout, coal industry employment in the U.S., what a just energy transition looks like for coal communities, and the environmental and economic effectiveness of nuclear energy and hydropower.

“I’ve learned a ton and really enjoyed the work,” he said. “It’s inspiring to remember that Secretary Kerry was first elected not too long after finishing grad school, and to think about the impact that classmates from Yale SOM, and across Yale, will have in the world going forward.”

The other Kerry Fellows from Yale SOM included J. Alexander Thew ’21, Blake Harwood ’21, and Michael Robinson, a 2018 graduate of the Yale SOM MBA program who is now a PhD student in marketing at the school.

A captain in the U.S. Army, Thew said that he felt a kinship with Kerry, who also served in the military.

“I studied nuclear engineering as an undergraduate and have been a follower of nuclear-related diplomacy for many years,” Thew said. “Learning from Secretary Kerry’s work in this realm expanded my understanding of how national security issues are handled at the international level and the role that both diplomacy and political leadership play in national security.”

Being part of a group of fellows drawn from across Yale was also enriching. “A hallmark of being educated at Yale has been the opportunity to learn from one another,” Thew said. “The fellowship cohort’s makeup across schools, combining graduate and undergraduate students, was incredibly diverse from both a career and experience standpoint.”

For Harwood, the fellowship offered the chance to explore her passion for international politics and development work, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa.

“The program connected me to current events, organizations, and experts in this field, as well as to Secretary Kerry himself, who has worked on these issues firsthand,” she said.

The fellowship, Harwood added, is a good example of the kind of opportunities and exposure students find at Yale.

“The Kerry Fellows Program is unique, though, in its access to leaders and the community it facilitates,” she said. “Perhaps most special was the experience of hearing Secretary Kerry’s thoughts about current global issues and his myriad experiences working for the American people on the international stage.”