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Seeking Light in the Darkness

Curiosity and Hope Drive 2023 Commencement Speaker

By Maggie Haslam

Colette Smith portrait

Colette Smith, who is graduating with a dual major in government and politics and psychology, will be the student speaker at the Commencement ceremony for the August 2022, December 2022 and Spring 2023 classes.

Photo by John T. Consoli

Colette Smith was just 11 days old when passenger jets collided with Manhattan’s Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001—but the events of that day and their aftermath shaped her childhood, curiosity and ultimately, her professional path.

“The events of 9/11 and everything that followed were discussed a lot by my parents when I was younger,” said Smith, who was born in Annapolis, Md. “I think people had different experiences with 9/11 and for some, it wasn’t as big of a deal. But it fundamentally impacted the world I grew up in, and I wanted to better understand that.”

The University of Maryland’s 2023 student commencement speaker, Smith graduates this month with a dual major in government and politics and psychology, and a minor in global terrorism studies.

She chose Maryland after visiting her brother Michael ’22 as a high school student; the diversity, energy and ambition of UMD’s community, she said, indulged her interest in people and places different from her upbringing in suburban Chicago. At Maryland, an interest in politics and government grew into a passion, buoyed by her experiences in UMD’s University Honors program, as a teaching assistant in national security policy and through the Federal Fellows program.

Smith immersed herself in the intricacies of national security, international relations and diplomacy through internships at the National Defense University and the Embassy of Jordan. As part of the Jordan Information Bureau, she prepared analysis briefs around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and also witnessed the efforts of world leaders to secure diplomacy and peace, a source of optimism for Smith in a field often marred by violence.

“It was just very interesting to see all of this conflict, but also progress,” she said.

In 2022, Smith took a summer internship with Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), where she researched the radicalization of domestic extremists and terrorism activities, including the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, and helped map how political extremism had penetrated America. Her attention to detail and drive, said START Junior Data Collection Specialist Alena Akers, prompted leadership to keep Smith on through her senior year.

“It was clear from the outset that Colette had a deep interest in the work we did,” said Akers. “I think she is really what we hope every intern that passes through START can be. We're very proud of her achievements, and, frankly, not at all surprised, as her hardworking and curious nature perfectly aligns with the path she's on.”

Smith will spend this summer in Morocco on a Critical Language Scholarship, where she hopes to practice her emerging Arabic, followed by a year in Jerusalem as a Fulbright Scholar. With her sights set on a career in diplomatic service, she will enroll in the master’s program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service when she returns to the U.S. in 2024. Smith said she’ll continue to be curious and motivated by those around her who are driven to make the world a better place.

“Seeing the passion other people bring to the world is definitely something that keeps me going,” she said. “It’s a drive that exists with the many people I’ve met at UMD and is really inspiring. It’s just a beautiful part of human nature.”



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