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Alumni Essay: Julie Gilstrap, '01 (international political economy major)
I entered Whitworth as an international political economy major knowing that I wanted to do political science, but also to do something with an international focus. The IPE programme was a perfect fit. I was planning on grad school, but did not have a clear idea of what I wanted to do afterward. At that time, my interest was in East Asia, and I expected that my career would take me in that direction. I had spent a year abroad in Japan in high school and chose Whitworth because it was one of very few Christian colleges where I could continue my Japanese language studies.
Looking back, I am amazed at how very different my life is than anything I could have imagined then.
Outside of Whitworth's courses and study tours, the most important experience during my college career that contributed to where I am now was participation in the Hansard Scholars Internship Programme in London the summer before my senior year. I worked for ten weeks at the House of Commons as research assistant to a member of Parliament and took courses at the London School of Economics on the British parliamentary system and on current British public policy issues. I heard about the internship by chance but it turned out to be a life-changing experience.
During my senior year, as I started to apply for grad schools, I knew I wanted to go abroad. My interest was in international affairs, so I wanted the breadth of experience that non-American education would give me. Following on from my summer in London, Britain was a logical place to look and, in the end, all five grad schools to which I applied were in the UK. I was applying directly to PhD programmes and so had to submit a thesis proposal. One of the issues we had studied at LSE the summer before was Scottish devolution - the creation of a Scottish Parliament in 1999 and the transfer of many powers from the UK Parliament to the Scottish one - and I had found it extremely interesting, so I wrote a research proposal around that. I was accepted into several schools, but ultimately chose the University of Edinburgh as Edinburgh was the Scottish capital and the location of the Scottish Parliament. It was the best possible place to study Scottish politics.
Grad school was not what I expected. Over the first year, my thesis topic changed significantly and moved away completely from Scottish politics. Indeed, the change was so great that in the end no one at Edinburgh was able to supervise me. This meant that, in order to continue, I was going to need to transfer to another university. The turmoil surrounding the transfer gave me a good opportunity to stop and think about why I was there and what were my goals. I had become pretty burned out and disillusioned with academia, so, after a lot of thinking, praying, and struggling, I decided to leave the University of Edinburgh with a master's degree and not to continue my Ph.D. While difficult at the time, it is a decision that I have never regretted.
This left me in a problematic position. While I was ready to end my studies, I did not want to leave Edinburgh. However, UK work permits are extremely difficult to obtain and without citizenship job opportunities in my field were limited. I spent several months looking for work with little success. Then, in April, Scotland entered into campaign season. We had Scottish Parliamentary elections on the 1st of May 2003, so there was plenty of campaign work to be done. I spent most of April volunteering on the campaign of a local candidate and although we did not win, I learned a lot and did some valuable networking. That led to a job, and in the summer of 2003 I began work at the Scottish Parliament as a researcher for the Conservative Party. My portfolio included enterprise, finance, and transport, so I worked developing policy ideas related to tax, economic and business development, the Scottish budget, and transport infrastructure. The Conservatives were not in power in Scotland, so few of my ideas were actually implemented, but I had an opportunity to influence political debate in the country. I prepared briefings for members of the Scottish Parliament for parliamentary debates, analysed and tried to improve upon government policy, and helped to develop new policies of our own. It gave me an excellent opportunity to learn a lot and was a valuable stepping stone. In addition, two years after I left the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish government announced that they were reducing business taxes, in line with a policy that I had played a central role in promoting during my time there. Eventually, all that hard work paid off.
After a year at the Scottish Parliament, the Conservative Party asked me to come to work for them as an election agent, essentially running a couple of local constituency associations in Edinburgh and organising the campaigns in those constituencies for the upcoming general election. So, in August 2004, I left the Parliament and went to work for the Conservative Party in campaigns, entering their agents training programme, anticipating a UK general election in May 2005. This was a great move and seemed like it was exactly the right direction in which to be moving. It was a promotion in the short term and would be a step in the right direction on my career ladder with the Conservative Party.
I loved the campaigning work, but things went wrong pretty quickly. Within four months, I was forced to leave. It was a difficult blow but an important lesson. I had been around politics long enough to know it could get nasty, but I was surprised at just how vindictive people could be who were supposed to be my allies. My principals and ethics were challenged and I had to choose whether to sacrifice them and keep a job that I loved, or hold to them and lose it. I know that I made the right decision, and in retrospect, I am genuinely thankful for the experience and all it taught me. I think there are real lessons there that will be of benefit in all political work I do for the rest of my life. However, I do not in any way want to underplay the difficulty of finding myself in a position that forced me to make those kinds of choices. It was challenging and frustrating, and it seemed nonsensical. How could things actually be working out this way? How could I be so let down by people on my own side?
It also left me in a difficult position, again, with my work permit, which is job-specific in the UK, no longer valid and my immigration status in limbo. It took a while, but in July 2005, I started my current job, working as a policy advisor for the Association of Scotland's Colleges. We are the policy and lobbying support body for all 43 of the publicly funded institutions in Scotland offering post-secondary but sub-degree level education, what would in America be community colleges, vocational and tech schools, etc. I work with stats and funding, as well as other bits and pieces. There are only eight of us, so we tend to do a bit of everything.
My political involvement has continued. I do a lot of campaigning work on the ground. We have elections to the Scottish Parliament and to local councils in May of next year, so the work is starting to gain intensity. I am acting as agent to a friend who is standing for the City of Edinburgh Council, helping to organise his campaign. Last year, I was asked by one of the members of the Scottish Parliament to contribute a chapter to a book about Scottish Conservatism in the 21st century; it was published earlier this year. It is a collection of essays and includes chapters by several Scottish parliamentarians. And I continue to be active at the UK level. I think a move to London to take on a political role there is not unlikely. However, given the unpredictable twists and turns thus far, I am reluctant to attempt to predict anything.
It has been a faith-building journey where I have learned about the faithfulness of God and the importance of trusting in his sovereignty. It has not been easy, and I never could have anticipated the way things have progressed this far, but I am confident that it is all within his hands.