“Where else would I ever be sitting in the same class with individuals from more than 10 countries?”

Dawn Cutler of Herndon, Virginia, the first graduate of Virginia Tech’s Two Capitals, Two Masters program, posed this rhetorical question when talking about her year at the University of Kent in Brussels, Belgium.

Cutler completed a master of arts in international conflict and security, with a specialization in human rights law, at the University of Kent during the 2015–16 academic year and will receive a masters in public and international affairs from Virginia Tech at the National Capital Region Commencement on May 14.

The two universities, located, respectively, near NATO and European Union headquarters in Brussels, and the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of United States government in Washington, D.C., offer a unique way for graduate students to study international relations in a Euro-Atlantic context, with an abundance of opportunities for learning, research, and professional advancement.

Drawing Cutler to the dual master’s program were a number of factors. She is a Virginia Tech alumna, with a bachelor’s degree in political science focusing on national security and a minor in history and Middle Eastern studies. The time-efficiency aspect was not new; she earned her undergraduate degree in just three years. Cutler also felt that having both a national and international master’s degree would make her a more attractive job candidate to international organizations.

And she had a philosophy: “The worst thing you can do is surround yourself with people who are just like you. You want to encourage debates and share opinions with a network of colleagues from different perspectives and different countries,” said Cutler.

Enrolled in three trimesters of British-style higher education at the University of Kent, she found that learning came from both inside and outside the classroom.

“Brussels is a big city, but it has a small community feel and a very accessible city center,” Cutler said. “In my year there, I met many people who worked in parliament or at embassies, and now I have friends from all over the world who I continue to learn from.”

While a University of Kent student, Cutler co-organized the Brussels School of International Studies Annual International Conference to examine the after-effects of conflict and factors that lead to conflict recurrence.  Her thesis concept was democratization: how you study it and how it affects the outcomes of foreign involvement.

In fall 2016, Cutler returned to the U.S. to begin the masters in public and international affairs program at Virginia Tech in Old Town Alexandria. There, in small discussion-based classes, she also found incredible diversity both in faculty and fellow classmates.

“I studied with employees from the departments of State, Defense, and Homeland Security as well as with military officers,” said Cutler. “They’ve given me so many different — and valuable — perspectives to apply in my own areas of interest and work.”

During the 2016–17 academic year at Virginia Tech, Cutler completed internships at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and at the State Department. There, she saw first-hand how theories work in practical application. Her practical experience at the State Department is the basis for her practicum capstone — a policy review on accountability to affected-populations procedures promoted by the United States.

“The idea is that you have to offer people the humanitarian help that they really need, not what a third party thinks they need,” she said.

Cutler said that, before Brussels, she had no study abroad experience and was not particularly enthusiastic about the idea of living in another country. That has changed. “You might even say I have wanderlust. I am constantly on the lookout for international opportunities,” Cutler said.

After graduation, Cutler plans to travel in Europe, visiting classmates from the University of Kent. She will also work at a GOCamp in Ukraine, teaching English to children in new, interactive ways. From September to November 2017, Cutler will complete an internship in the nongovernmental organization sector in Hong Kong.

“The incredible learning opportunity I have experienced through the Two Capitals, Two Masters program has further inspired my long-term goal of working for human rights through a federal or international agency,” said Cutler. “I am sure everything I have gained these past two years will play an important role in helping me help others.”

Written by Barbara Micale