Mithra Dhinakaran’s academic interest for China is now carrying her there.
Dhinakaran, of Fairfax, who graduated from the University of Virginia in May, has been named a Schwarzman Scholar, allowing her to study in China. The Schwarzman Scholars, a graduate fellowship program, has 150 participants from 43 countries who will participate in a one-year, fully funded master’s degree program in global affairs at Schwarzman College, part of Tsinghua University in Beijing.
With a UVA degree in economics and global studies focusing on security and justice, Dhinakaran said her Schwarzman experience will further her in a career helping to shape foreign policy.
“I’m interested in a mix of research and administration focused on U.S.-China relations, mainly great power strategy,” she said. “I hope to help strengthen political and cultural understanding of China among American policymakers and people, through research and policy, such that we have greater empathy and are better equipped to collaborate on global issues.”
Since graduating from UVA, Dhinakaran has worked in consulting and plans to continue until she leaves for China in August. After her year in Beijing, she said she plans to pursue a career working in a think tank, the federal government and/or academia, researching and implementing policy.
“I think new doors have opened,” she said. “Connecting with the world-class leaders, ideas and resources of the Schwarzman Scholars network enables me to accelerate my impact in my field of work. This experience would be invaluable to me in understanding the workings of global leadership, as well as China as a whole.”
Dhinakaran’s affinity toward China started by watching Chinese cinema and blossomed in later years.
“My interest in global affairs grew at the same time China gained prominence on the global stage, so my interest naturally gravitated in that direction,” she said. “At this time in my life, I can’t think of a better opportunity to grow, personally and professionally, while studying a topic of keen interest.”
This experience is not Dhinakaran’s first passage to East Asia. She took a semester to study Chinese in Taiwan in the fall of 2022.
“It strengthened my interest in Chinese language and U.S.-China policy,” she said. “It also reinforced how much the U.S. stands to learn from our partners in Asia. Getting to know people in Taiwan was such a lovely experience. It definitely inspired me to live abroad again.”
Dhinakaran credits her experiences at UVA for helping get her this far.
“The UVA Chinese department is incredible,” she said. “My teachers always brought a lot of enthusiasm and skill to the classroom, which sustained my interest. The depth of knowledge of professors teaching China-related courses is also incredible. I learned a lot from them.”
Peter Furia, an associate professor in the politics department and the Global Studies-Security and Justice Program, worked with Dhinakaran in two seminar classes.
“In group discussions, she stood out for being willing to, thoughtfully and cheerfully, challenge the prevailing views of the majority of students in the class,” Furia said.
Furia said he was also impressed with how Dhinakaran approached her work and her study abroad.
“Whereas the path of least resistance is to just go on one of UVA’s own programs, and the next-most common thing is to go to the United Kingdom or Australia, Mithra jumped through a lot of hoops in order to attend the program in Taiwan that she thought best fit her interests,” he said. “I’ve also rarely seen a student as determined as Mithra in going above and beyond course requirements in terms of her undergrad thesis – first, by securing a grant to present a paper on it at a national political science conference in Chicago, mostly attended by professors, and more recently, by submitting a revised version of it to one of the same peer-reviewed journals we publish in.”
Andrus G. Ashoo, director of the Office of Citizen Scholar Development, said Dhinakaran will make the most of this latest opportunity.
“Mithra has worked hard to get to this point, and I think with every advance in the [Schwarzman] competition she was genuinely surprised,” Ashoo said. “Part of her selection certainly came from her curiosity about and commitment to bringing the U.S. and China closer – something she intended to pursue regardless of the outcome of the Schwarzman process. We are really excited for how she will grow during the program.”
Dhinakaran said the application process reinforced her commitment to studying and advancing American foreign policy.
“It was interesting to take stock of myself and my experiences over the past several years,” Dhinakaran said. “The pandemic led me to take on untraditional projects and learning opportunities, but it was hard to gauge their significance. In my reflection, I realized just how far I’d come, and that my hodge-podge of endeavors had fostered my creativity, resilience and courage. I’m very thankful for my mentors and the staff at the career office for encouraging me to explore new directions, as all my experiences amplified my personal and professional development.”