From Stage to Stage, CLA Alum Sydney Kakuk’s Journey to DC

Sydney Kakuk
Political science alum Sydney Kakuk (BA '21)

Alumna Sydney Kakuk’s undergraduate career was a test of resilience. 

During her high-school years, Kakuk was all-in for music. "I ended up doing a lot of music in my extracurriculars, and I really loved it," she recalls. After an apprenticeship at the Minnesota Opera Company during her senior year, she auditioned for music schools across the country. Being a "Minnesotan, born and raised," Kakuk ultimately chose to stay close to home at the University of Minnesota.

However, Kakuk's first two years at college weren't what she hoped and the music department “was just not a good fit for [her]." Being unsatisfied with her situation, Kakuk even considered dropping out. "There were moments where I wasn't sure that I wanted to be in school anymore.” She knew something had to change. 

Accelerando: A New Path

Kakuk had been familiar with political science from a young age. "My dad was a political science major when he was in college," Kakuk explains. "My dad and I would talk about current events, we talked about history, and it really… [was] a catalyst of interest." Already having a baseline knowledge in political science through both Advanced Placement and college classes, Kakuk became interested in a career in political science after taking Professor Mark Bell's class, POL 4891 - The Politics of Nuclear Weapons. Kakuk became a research assistant for Bell and, eventually, developed a mentor-mentee relationship.

"Sydney was one of the top students in my class," Professor Bell recalls. She became a research assistant on a project about the future of U.S. nonproliferation policy. “I was also able to have her help out running a nuclear crisis simulation when I taught the class the following year."

Unconditional Belief

“When you have someone who undoubtedly believes in you, [you] feel like the sky's the limit,” Kakuk says. Professor Bell’s support led Kakuk to apply for and receive the prestigious Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellowship, for which there were hundreds of candidates. As a Scoville Peace Fellow, Kakuk was able to choose among 22 organizations to work with in Washington, DC. Coming from a nuclear weapons and security background, Kakuk chose the well-respected Nuclear Threat Initiative.

The biggest project Kakuk has worked on with them, called After Disarmament, is an interdisciplinary conceptual system that could be in place after nuclear weapons are disarmed. “[T]here's a lot of literature about how we get to the disarmament phase, but not much work on what those systems ...look like after the disarmament phase is over.” Kakuk’s work is crucial to filling in the gaps about disarmament and nonproliferation. 

She has also been working with NTI’s Nuclear Materials Security Team producing a threat analysis on the risks of domestic violent extremism in the United States. “There are people who may be a part of violent extremist groups who could be working at a nuclear facility,” Kakuk explains. “Does that individual pose a risk for that facility?”

A New Way Forward

Looking forward, Kakuk hopes to use her backgrounds in both music and political science to advance methods of diplomacy. “When we think about international and national security, it can come from an inhuman place. The security community often forgets that the policy they design impacts civilians across the globe,” explains Kakuk. “I think that music is one of the most human things there is, and if we could have more emphasis on what connects us and what makes us all human, we can have more healthy conversations around international security.”

Kakuk’s experiences and resilience have set her up for the future, ready to help the world. “I always wanted to make a difference. And at first, I thought, you know, I could do that through music. When I started to combine the two and go down this political road, I felt like I could do a lot more.” 

Despite some dissonance at the start, Kakuk’s interdisciplinary background in music and political science has given her a unique perspective on international security and diplomacy and with the support of the Department of Political Science, she is poised to find the right stage to show what she can do.

This story was written by an undergraduate student in CLA.

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