Batten Student Advises Policymakers on Security Issues

May 22, 2023 By Matt Kelly, Matt Kelly,

Maggie Sparling spent part of her spring in Fiji, working on national security and having experts listen to her insights.

Sparling, who graduated Sunday from the University of Virginia with majors in history and economics, is in a public policy master’s program in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. This spring, she was part of the National Bureau of Asian Research’s Pacific Islands Strategic Dialogue, supported by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

“That was a wild experience,” Sparling said. “I never expected to be in Fiji briefing research on Chinese activity in the Pacific Islands. So when I say it’s been a wild past few years, it truly has been.”

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Maggie in Fiji briefing research with group
Maggie Sparling consults with April Herlevi during the Wargame for Innovation and Frontline Improvisation in Indian Head, Maryland, in December. (Contributed photo)

Sparling loved history when she came to UVA, especially the complex history of the Cold War. But the more she studied, the more she knew she wanted to be at the decision-makers’ table. She expanded her studies into economics to widen her skillset and started applying for national security internships in 2020.

Her journey to Fiji began with an internship at the Women’s Foreign Policy Group, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C.

“I had a lot of opportunities to work on research projects. I did one focused on artificial intelligence and national security,” she said. “That experience, and getting to meet so many amazing women working in the field, helped me figure out what working in this policy area looking like in practice.”

After her internship, she took a Batten course, Innovating for Defense, with John Robinson, the National Security Policy Center’s director of academic programs, offered in partnership with the National Security Innovation Network.

“I was with a team; we were partnered with USCYBERCOM [created in 2009 at the National Security Agency headquarters in Ft. Meade, Maryland], working on a semesterlong project to develop a framework to evaluate partners for cyber-cooperation in Africa,” Sparling said.

Robinson said Sparling is an excellent student, but what really sets her apart is her ability to confidently and compassionately lead others.

“Since 2018, roughly 250 undergraduate and graduate students have taken Innovating for Defense. I’m convinced that Maggie Sparling is the best team lead – and leader – I’ve seen in those five years. She is a rare young person who possesses exceptional intellectual and academic ability, but also the stamina, grit and desire to do the hard work of leading and helping others.”

Sparling also did a summer fellowship in 2022 with X Force, a summer internship program at the National Security Innovation Network which works directly with military and national security leaders on mission-focused, real-world projects. In that role, Sparling worked with the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, Indiana, to evaluate Chinese activity in the “gray zone,” the murky space between peace and cooperation and armed conflict, in the Pacific Islands. From this experience, she met Lesley Wilhelm, who works at the Naval Surface Warfare Center – Indian Head Division. Wilhelm invited her to participate in a war game exercise.

“One of my teammates and I from the summer went up to Maryland after [fall semester] exams and briefed our research at a wargame in December,” Sparling said. “At the wargame, I met April Herlevi, who works at the Center for Naval Analyses and the National Bureau of Asian Research.”

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94% On-Time Graduation Rate Pleases 100% of Parents, to be great and good in all we do

A few months after the wargame, Herlevi, an expert in China’s foreign economic policy who received her Ph.D. in international relations and comparative politics from UVA, invited Sparling to attend a security dialogue focused on the Pacific Islands, to be held in Fiji.

It was there that Sparling spoke to policymakers and academics from the United States, the Melanesian countries (Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea) and Australia. She addressed the future direction of military and security affairs in Melanesia with her work focused on the future of U.S. relations and Chinese activity in the region.

While her recent work has focused on the Chinese threat, Sparling does not see herself as a China expert.

“I don't have the Chinese language skills,” she said. “But given the way the world is going, most of my work has been through a China lens. I work on a lot of other policy issues and most of them ultimately come back to U.S.-China relations in at least some capacity.”

Sparling is part of growing number of women working in national security fields, and she already is mentoring younger women interested in the work.

“Women have a unique capacity to receive other people and to feel the emotions that get tied into some of these issues,” she said. “I think this can give them a unique ability to see how other people are impacted by these issues.”

When she was younger, Sparling thought the people making historic decisions were “different.” But the longer she’s worked in public policy, the more she’s realized they are everyday people, too.

“They don’t have some magic fairy touch that lets them work in these issues,” she said. “And realizing that I am sometimes the person in the room who knows the most about an issue is a little humbling, and a little terrifying.”

Still, Sparling enjoys the work and its challenges.

“I love how mission-focused it is,” she said. “I value working in a space where people are committed to the end goal. Nobody’s working on national security policies, especially in the public sector side, for the money. People are there because they care about the mission.”

As much as Sparling enjoys her work, she does not define herself by it, and she takes rest with her Catholic faith and spending time with her friends and family.

“My faith plays an integral role in grounding me in the midst of all the work,” she said. “When I get particularly stressed about something work- or school-related, I will often go to the church to pray and this always helps put things into perspective.”

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Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications