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News & Events for the Smith College Community
Campus Life April 20, 2022

Erin Oppel ’22: Giving Credit

Photograph by Jeff Baker

It was September 2016, and Erin Oppel ’22—then a high school student from Muscatine, Iowa—found herself on the porch of Smith’s Government House discussing world politics with professor Greg White.

“It was the first conversation I’d ever had about international relations,” Oppel says—and it’s not an exaggeration to say that it changed her life.

Five years later, Oppel is graduating from Smith with a degree in government and a minor in East Asian studies—and looking to help change the lives of others. The recipient of a prestigious Blakemore Freeman Fellowship—usually awarded to graduate students—she’s preparing for a year of intensive Chinese-language study at National Taiwan University before launching a career in international relations. And she gives all credit to professors like White and the many others she’s studied with during her time at Smith.

Oppel describes her path to Smith as “unorthodox.” As a high school student, she was “dead set” on going to a large university where she could play NCAA Division I basketball. But a devastating knee injury in her senior year ended her basketball career, undermining her confidence and abruptly forcing her to rethink her college plans.

Oppel’s parents had suggested she look at Smith (her beloved great-aunt, Joy Heaton Connors ’59, is an alum), and so high-school Oppel found herself in conversation with White, talking about internships, scholarships “and all the things I could do at Smith. That’s when I realized I needed to be at a small school,” she says. “It gave me a chance to build so many good relationships with so many great people.”

Since enrolling, Oppel has taken advantage of just about every opportunity that Smith has offered. A STRIDE scholar and a participant in Smith’s Picker Program in Washington D.C., she’s researched the spread of authoritarian technology in China, as well as human rights in Morocco and in East Asia. A 2019 internship at the State Department connected her with a 30-year diplomat—now her mentor—who demonstrated how to “push things forward in international diplomacy.” And a 2020 internship at the United Nations connected her with a different kind of mentor—a young, dynamic leader “who’s taught me the value of work/life balance.”

There are other influencers, too: Her family, of course. Her “amazing” Chinese professors at Smith, who “make it easy to study Chinese, even though it’s a hard language.” Professor Steve Heydemann, who taught Oppel’s favorite course, on political fiction of the Arab world. Marnie Anderson, “who really believes in her students, and who encourages us to believe in ourselves, too.” And Professor Sara Newland, who’s populated Oppel’s upcoming Taipei itinerary with countless recommendations for books, hikes, contacts and activities.

“She’s been a great and foundational professor, partly because she’s interested in the same things I am,” Oppel laughs. “She’s helped me figure out where to hike, what clubs I could join, what sports games I can go to. And where I can drink bubble tea!”

As she readies for the Blakemore, Oppel notes that it’s an interesting time to be heading to Taipei. “Increasingly, there’s been a bipartisan consensus to push back against China’s policies,” she says. “But I think we can balance pushback against policies with not being racist. The pushback shouldn’t be against Chinese people.”

At the end of her year in Taipei, Oppel expects to be “professionally proficient” in Mandarin, and then she hopes to attend grad school, and eventually pursue a career in international diplomacy. “I love the interpersonal relationships that you find in that environment,” she says. “And there are so many opportunities to work with citizens, NGOs and citizen-activists.”

But first? She looks forward to Commencement, then a summer at home in Iowa, practicing her language skills and preparing to present her thesis—on democratic backsliding and autocratic control of the United Nations—at a conference in Greece.

It’s a lot. But five years after that fateful meeting on the Gov House porch, Oppel is quietly confident about how far she’s come. “When I arrived at Smith, I was very shy,” she reflects. “College was the first time that I’d heard that I was really capable. I wouldn’t feel so ready to take on everything that comes next if I hadn’t had so many wonderful professors who care about me and believed in me at Smith.”