Alumni-nominated spotlight: Jessica Keegan, MAS ’16, of the International Republican Institute

As part of our Pass the Pen series, Jessica Keegan shares her efforts to promote democracy around the globe, how her GPS education supported her career and more

May 15, 2020 | By Jade Griffin | GPS News

Jessica Keegan with Susan ThorntonIn a time where democracy is meeting threats around the globe, UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy alumna Jessica Keegan is working on the frontlines to keep democracy alive and well. Keegan works at the International Republican Institute (IRI), one of a handful of nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations supporting the promotion of democracy around the globe. 

IRI facilitates competitive, multiparty elections, assists citizens to have a voice in government planning and works to increase the role of marginalized groups in the political process—including women and youth. Keegan serves as the organization's resident program director and senior technical specialist. Keegan has worked in over a dozen countries, from Egypt and Nigeria to Cambodia and Timor Leste. Currently, she is based in Nairobi, Kenya.

“Many people scratch their head when I tell them what I do,” said Keegan. “In essence, I encourage democracy in places where it is absent, help democracy become more effective where it is in danger and share best practices where democracy is flourishing.”

Read on to learn more about Keegan’s top career highlights, how GPS complemented her career and what city may be next on the docket for her.

Q: What is a highlight of your career so far?

A: My most memorable work experience to date was leading the U.S. International Election Observation Mission to Zimbabwe in 2018. We deployed over 60 international observers to witness the conduct of the national elections, which informed U.S. foreign policy on Zimbabwe. It was a pivotal moment for me in that I really saw the direct impact of my work.

I've also had the great fortune to partner with democracy activists from around the world. From resistance leader and Nobel Prize Laureate Jose Ramos-Horta to the first elected female head of state in Africa, former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Throughout my career, I’ve met truly resilient people who are trying to improve their countries under extreme circumstances, which many of us, as Americans, can’t imagine. 

Q: What did you learn at GPS that has been most useful in your career?

A: So many things! I learned so much in International Law and Regulation about the international system which really helped me in my line of work, especially how game theory plays out in international negotiations. What I learned significantly influenced my decision making in my current role. GPS also provided great exposure to data management and analytic approaches.

Jessica KeeganQ: What was your most memorable class or professor at GPS?

A: My most interesting class was probably American Foreign Policy. My professor was an advisor to former President Lyndon Johnson and was a font of knowledge on the Cold War—having been at the center of decision making during that time. He was also wonderfully kind, inviting students over for dinner so we could listen to all his incredible stories.

Q: Your job must be intensive at times. What do you like to do to relax?

A: I like to spend time working in my garden—everything grows in Kenya. I have also been trying to grow black bamboo; it grows very slowly. I find gardening and tending to my plants helps me to relax. It's therapeutic and brings me a lot of joy.

Q: Where is your favorite city to live? Any experiences alumni should not miss when visiting?

A: I'm excited about the prospect of returning to Washington, D.C. after being on the road for the last 10 years. I consider D.C. my home and it will be nice to be back among friends and family. D.C. has its challenges like any other city, but it has such a deep and rich history, which I appreciate.

The Library of Congress is a hidden gem. There you can visit Jefferson's Library which contains President Thomas Jefferson's library of over 6,000 books. He sold his entire personal collection to the Library following the War of 1812 when the previous library and its collection was destroyed by the British. You should also take in a show at the Kennedy Center, complete with drinks on the veranda overlooking Georgetown and the Potomac River.

Q: What is your dream job (other than your current job)?

A: I would like to be a backup singer in a Filipino cover band or a travel editor!

Jessica Keegan with GPS friendsQ: You’ve been all over the world. What is a particularly memorable travel experience you’d like to share?

A: Tokyo and the surrounding islands. I loved the austerity, sophistication, architecture, culture, food and the Japanese design esthetic that subtly balances intention, refinement and beauty.

Q: What do you miss the most about your days at GPS?

A: I miss hiking in La Jolla with friends. Having classmates from all over the world created such a rich learning environment. They brought a wealth of knowledge and perspective to the classroom that really bolstered my GPS experience. Grad school helped me build lasting and meaningful connections that I treasure today.

Read more stories on GPS alumni:

Pass the Pen: Alisha Tomita-Yu of Oracle

Pass the Pen: Booz Allen Hamilton consultant Maura Deignan

Pass the Pen: Renewable energy expert Peter Moritzburke