When Hillary Rodham Clinton ’69 concluded her eulogy for Madeleine Korbel Albright ’59 by saying “Godspeed, ’59,” it tugged at the hearts of Wellesley alumnae who watched from around the world—including the cohort of more than 500 Albright fellows.
The fellows are veterans of the Madeleine Korbel Albright Institute for Global Affairs, created in 2009 to offer selected Wellesley students a collaborative educational experience in international leadership and problem-solving. Albright’s experience climbing the ladder in Washington made her realize there were things she wished she had learned earlier—“really understanding how people from various disciplines need to work together to get something done, the importance of being able to summarize things in a way that is understandable, to be able to give public presentations, and to work in teams,” Albright said at the institute’s 10th anniversary celebration in 2019.
Albright fellows attend lectures by College faculty, alums, and global leaders. Working in groups, they undertake projects about solving intractable global problems such as nuclear proliferation and world hunger. They make oral presentations about their solutions to institute faculty—and every year to Albright herself. “The idea was organic and flexible, and it almost invented itself,” Joanne Murray ’81, then director of the institute, told Wellesley during the first program in 2010.
Jaya Gupta ’11, a fellow in that first cohort, earned her Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and works as a consultant to the World Health Organization. The lessons she learned at the institute have stayed with her. “Amazing and distinguished speakers would come and give lectures about ethics or business practices, and I still refer to them in my mind to this day in my own career,” she says. Then there’s the camaraderie. “Conversations would start in the classroom but end way past dinner,” she says.
Growing up in New Hampshire, 2011 fellow Rebecca Turkington ’12 was fascinated by presidential primaries and politics. “My original decision to apply to Wellesley was very much because of the secretary,” she says. “She was a childhood hero of mine. I literally had a picture of her on my bedroom wall. It was the cover of her Madam Secretary book.”
The institute had a profound effect on Turkington’s career path. “I used the opportunity of the [Albright] summer stipend to live in North Africa for three months. It gave me a grounding, a regional expertise, and improved my language skills.” When she applied for jobs in Washington, it was a huge boon to have international experience on her résumé. “My first job ended up being at the National Democratic Institute, where Madeleine was the chair,” she says. “It came out of the work I had done in Morocco on local women’s political participation.” Now, Turkington is pursuing a Ph.D. in history at Cambridge University after having spent nearly a decade working in international relations.
The secretary responds to Albright fellows presentations during the 2010 institute.
Madeleine Korbel Albright ’59 poses with fellows.
Albright, making a sandwich in El Table, where she had worked as an undergraduate.
Albright reveled in spending time with Wellesley students.
Polishing presentation skills in a high-pressure setting is central to the institute experience. Halimatou Hima ’10, an international student from Niger and a 2010 fellow, was until recently minister counsellor at the Permanent Mission of Niger to the United Nations. This year, she joined the Global Partnership for Education and became a fellow at the Brookings Institution, working to ensure the continuation of education in conflict settings.
“We were the first group to present,” Hima says. “To be taken that seriously, at that age, in a classroom setting by a former secretary of state of the United States—that’s quite a powerful experience. It was quite intimidating, to see Secretary Albright taking notes, with her glasses pushed a little bit down on her nose. She asked us really challenging questions.” Hima doesn’t think that Albright was quizzing them; rather, she was trying to get them to consider “the type of questions that you might encounter as a policymaker, a woman in international affairs. She really pushed us; she didn’t think, ‘Oh, these are undergraduates.’ She thought of us as intelligent, capable women.”
Hima appreciated the diversity of interests among the fellows. “The Albright was the first time in my young life that I had the opportunity to work with people who had such wildly different interests coming from really different fields, looking at the complexities of issues around the world. The most creative approaches come about when you have that type of diversity at the table,” she says.
That diversity of backgrounds and interests is a hallmark of the institute, says Sabrina Leung ’18, a 2018 fellow who recently returned to the U.S. after working in finance in Hong Kong. “I studied international relations, so I usually worked with people with poli sci, econ, and history backgrounds. I had never had the chance to interact with people from the sciences, and it was really worthwhile. And most of my group members were international students, so they had different perspectives than I did, as someone who grew up in the U.S.,” she says.
Encountering different perspectives was important to Turkington, too. “Secretary Albright had a very particular vision of America’s place in the world that she was very consistent about,” she says. “We definitely got that traditional approach to America as an indispensable nation. But what I also got from the experience was having people from so many different backgrounds in so many different countries, many of whom are very critical of that vision of America’s place in the world. It opened my mind to thinking more critically about foreign policy.”
Yookyung “Sandra” Chung ’19 was a 2019 fellow. A Korean American, she is a candidate for a master’s in law and diplomacy at the Fletcher School at Tufts. “The institute puts a lot of emphasis on interdisciplinarity, on being able to see the different facets of problems,” she says. “Regardless of your major … everyone should apply. Because now in the world, everything’s so interdisciplinary, it’s the asset that you’ll bring. Everything matters, and your perspective is just so valuable.”
When Albright created the institute, she hoped the fellows would support each other in the fight to establish women as leaders in the world. It’s a vision that resonated strongly with Amal Cheema ’17, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants who are both physicians. A student at Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College, this fall she’ll be taking a break to get a master’s in public health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “The secretary really emphasized that you always leave the door behind you open for others to follow, and you’re always there at that door to bring them with you,” she says. “If my career does not allow other people to achieve those opportunities and even more, then it’s an education lost.”
“[Albright] told me, ‘Here’s my card. Call me anytime. You belong there. And ask yourself, anytime you feel fearful, what you would do if you weren’t afraid.’”
—Halimatou Hima ’10
The Albright Institute experience for the most recent two cohorts has been markedly different due to the pandemic, but no less meaningful. In January, Program Director Rebecca Gordan ’01 and Faculty Director Stacie Goddard had to move quickly to shift the institute online because of a COVID surge, but Albright remained a powerful presence, even virtually. “The secretary talked about how, during her time at the U.N., she formed a working group with other women. They would just support each other. I think realizing that even at such a high level in a career, you can still reach out to other women and ask for support and also support them—that’s not something that stops once you reach a certain level,” says Thayer Wilson ’25, a Mozambican American with a special interest in immigration issues.
Albright demonstrated the enduring power of Wellesley friendships on a more personal level, Gupta says, by turning up at the institute with Wini Shore Freund ’59. “She would come in with her best friend, Wini, and for us, that was so special—to see mirrored in our future selves how important it is to have female friendship,” she says.
Turkington was watching when Hillary Clinton delivered her eulogy in the National Cathedral and spoke of the Albright Institute. “[The fellows] came from all corners of the globe to hear from experts, to think critically about our biggest challenges, and to prepare for central roles in solving them. And very often, she would call me when she returned with just such enthusiasm in her voice about the young women that she had just spent time with, and what they were going to do in the future,” Clinton said.
“It was touching to hear Hillary say that Madeleine considered the institute to be her legacy,” Turkinton says. “The idea that she would call her after these mentor sessions to talk about how energized she was! It was nice to feel like we mattered to her, too.”
In October 2019, Hima was at Wellesley, on her birthday, to help celebrate the institute’s 10th anniversary. “I spent my birthday with Madeleine Albright on stage at Wellesley,” she says. “And that was not even the happiest of the coincidences.” She recently had been appointed to the U.N. Security Council, and there she was with the first woman to serve as U.S. ambassador to the U.N.
After the panel, the speakers gathered in the green room offstage, and she had a chance to speak to the secretary. “I told Madeleine Albright that I was going to be joining my country’s team at the Security Council as the sole woman appointed to the team,” she says. “As a young woman, when you receive news of such an appointment, it’s major. But there’s also a lot of fear that comes with entering such a space. Am I ready? Will I be good enough? Will I be able to get my voice across? I didn’t voice these fears, but it was if the secretary could hear me. She told me, ‘Here’s my card. Call me anytime. You belong there. And ask yourself, anytime you feel fearful, what you would do if you weren’t afraid.’”
Catherine O’Neill Grace is senior associate editor of this magazine.