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Hilary Matfess selected for prestigious Council on Foreign Relations program

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Hilary Matfess


Every year, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) welcomes a new class of young professionals to the Stephen M. Kellen Term Members Program. Set up with the goal of allowing the best and brightest from diverse backgrounds to interact with seasoned experts, each member serves a five-year term that includes opportunities to participate in trips, events, and discussions on the most critical foreign policy matters of our time. This year, the Josef Korbel School's own Hilary Matfess is one of the newest Term Members and will bring her vast expertise to the epicenter of all things foreign policy.

Matfess was a student of the Georgia Public Schools system, and after graduating, she was accepted into Johns Hopkins on the Hodson Trust Scholarship, then applied and got accepted into Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) for their 5-year BA/MA program. While there, she pursued a specialization in African Studies and interned with USAID in Ethiopia. "I was really lucky to have mentors at SAIS," she tells me, "I spent three years at the campus in Baltimore, then the last two years at the campus in Washington D.C." Soon after her time at Johns Hopkins, she went to work for a one-year term at the National Defense University's Center for Complex Operations. "I definitely benefited from my network," she says, "Knowing people in DC was incredibly valuable."

Once the term with the National Defense University ended, she began reflecting on the work she had done in Nigeria. "I had all of this research on women in war and Boko Haram and nothing to do with it, so I pitched a book idea to the publishing company Zed." This was shortly before she began another job in DC at the Institute for Defense Analysis. That was in the summer of 2016, and on November 9th, following the Presidential election, she began thinking about her next steps. "I thought about what I wanted to do; I didn't want to stay in Washington. I reflected on my time as an intern at USAID, and my working with Dr. Peter Lewis on Nigeria," she said. So, in January of 2017, she left DC to work in her new role with the Center for Democracy and Development West Africa, a think tank in Abuja – Nigeria's capital, while also continuing to write her book.

Throughout all of these changes, one thing lingered in the back of her mind – the applications she had sent out to Ph.D. programs before she left for Abuja. "When I was at the Institute for Defense Analysis, I decided I wanted to get a Ph.D.," she said, "and it wasn't until I was about to go to Nigeria when I began to hear back." First, she received her acceptance to the University of California Los Angeles the night before she flew out. "I was relieved," she tells me, "Then, while I was in Nigeria, I got an acceptance to Yale and decided that would be where I would go."

In the Fall of 2017, Matfess' book, Women and the War on Boko Haram, was released; she began her Ph.D. program and, as if that wasn't enough, she continued to write for general audiences and engage in part-time, policy-relevant work.  Throughout it all, though, she reiterated how lucky she has been to have such amazing mentors. "I definitely benefited at Yale from having all of these incredible women to look up to and model myself after," she says. 

So, how did Matfess get to the Josef Korbel School in the mountains of the US interior all the way from Yale on the East Coast? "I guess my journey to DU would have begun about 10 years ago," she says, "That was when I first went to a talk by Dr. Marie Berry, I was living in DC." After the talk, Matfess asked if Dr. Berry would meet with her over breakfast. "I was intimidated," she says, "I needed to not let this person find out how much of a profound geek I was." The rest is history – they stayed in touch over the years, "and when Korbel posted a job, I thought, 'how cool would it be to go work with someone who had been so instrumental in my professional development and personal sanity throughout grad school?'" She got the job, moved out to Denver, and began her work as a professor.

"I love that the Korbel school is so focused on this idea of a private institution dedicated to the public good," she tells me, "I want to give back; I want my research to be doing something better for the global community." That's what excites her about being a CFR Term Member – "I feel like it's another opportunity to bring myself, and in a transitive way my students, closer to those conversations happening among policymakers in Washington and New York." Over the next five years, Matfess will have the opportunity to engage with the best and brightest minds in foreign policy and international relations, but she'll be the first to tell you the appointment was a group effort. "Becoming a Term Member," she told me, "Reflects so much more on the community that supported me than on myself. None of us are islands; your community is what carries you."


This article was written by Korbel graduate student David Kelm.