• Name: Salwa Balla
  • College: College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences
  • Major/minor: national security and foreign affairs, international public policy/Arabic
  • Hometown: Richmond, Virginia
  • Plans after graduation: interning with U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, working fulltime as an analyst with Pallas Advisors
  • Favorite Class: Nations and Nationalities, taught by Professor Edward Weisband

After learning she is the 2023 CLAHS Outstanding Senior, the first person Salwa Balla told was her mom.

“I was in a state of shock,” Balla said. “It felt really good, honestly. I’m very humbled and very grateful.”

As a shy kid from Richmond, Balla never expected when she first arrived in Blacksburg in 2019 that she would become the confident and outspoken person she is today.

Balla began her time at Virginia Tech as a biology major, but realized she wanted to study subjects that resonate with her personally. Those are national security and foreign affairs and international public policy.

Balla’s parents emigrated from Sudan to the United States in the late '90s. Her first year at Virginia Tech coincided with the 2019 Sudanese Revolution, a movement that began with street protests and led to a major shift of political power in the country.

“It’s something I was always interested in — diplomacy, public speaking, compromise — and using communication to solve international problems,” Balla said of her major choices. “I wanted to see how I could use my opportunities and resources here to go into a field where I can make a difference in Sudan.”

Also, in high school, she participated in Model UN — a simulation of the UN General Assembly, which sparked her interest in international public policy. The simulations allow students to perform as ambassadors and debate current event topics. 

Journey to Virginia Tech

The first time Balla traveled to Blacksburg was for Hokie Focus, a one-day event for students with admission offers to learn more about the university.

“The moment I stepped on the campus and looked around, I knew this was where I was supposed to be,” Balla said. “It was just the feeling of campus and the friendliness of everyone here that really drew me toward going to Virginia Tech.”

Hands-on education

Balla spent time studying and interning in the nation’s capital as part of Virginia Tech’s Washington, D.C. Semester in Global Engagement during spring 2022. She interned with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center, specializing in social, economic, and human development issues in the Middle East.

“I learned a lot about myself,” Balla said. “Like what I’m like in the workforce outside of my role as a student, and I’d never experienced that before.”

During the same semester, she also worked as an undergraduate researcher for the Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons through Viginia Tech's Diplomacy Lab program. 

Balla is currently participating in a fellowship with Pallas Advisors, an advisory firm based in Washington, D.C., that specializes in national security, defense, and innovation. 

She spent last summer studying abroad in France through Accents, the University of Savoie Mont Blanc's French language education center. She also attended the 2022 German Marshall Fund's Brussels Forum in Belgium,  a platform for global leaders and policy makers to debate pressing global challenges and shape the transatlantic agenda. 

On campus, Balla is involved with the Black Cultural Center and the Coalition for Refugee Resettlement.

A college’s lasting impact

Balla hopes her education and experiences will lead her to a career focused on public diplomacy and potentially, a job at the U.S. Department of State. Looking back at the last four years, Balla said that more than anything, her time in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences has helped her build confidence.

“If you told me four years ago where I’d be today, I would be in total shock,” Balla said. “Taking classes about subjects I’m very passionate about gave me the drive and the push to throw my ideas out there, participate in class, and just be more outspoken. And the friends I made in college really helped me come out of my shell and grow into the person I am today.”

Balla recalls taking the course Nations and Nationalities, taught by Edward Weisband, in the spring of 2020 after she had just switched her major. A lesson on tribal body scarification caught Balla’s attention. After sharing with Weisband that her grandmothers had scarification on their faces, he asked Balla to share more about the subject with the class.

“I’m not exaggerating when I say that class changed my whole viewpoint of life in general,” Balla said. “He teaches with such passion and care, and you know it means a lot to him to teach students about the concept of identity, nationality, and ethnicity."

After graduation, Balla will spend two months interning with U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts in Washington, D.C., through College to Congress, a program that will cover all of her expenses. Afterward, she will immediately begin a full-time position as an analyst with Pallas Advisors. 

Balla said she feels it is often overlooked how much professors care about their students, and reiterated how grateful she is for the "awesome resources" she has had access to throughout her educational career at Virginia Tech.

Written by Kelsey Bartlett