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How a JMC education fosters a love for learning and global awareness

March 17, 2022 - Beth Brauer

Shannon Riley is an alumna of James Madison College. She graduated in 2013 with degrees in international relations and comparative cultures and politics with specializations in Jewish studies and Muslim studies. Riley is a privacy analyst at Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency in Washington D.C.

Tell me a bit about your decision to attend James Madison College and Michigan State.

Growing up in Michigan, it was natural for me to consider MSU. My mom went to school here and, since I graduated, two of my sisters graduated from Michigan State — one is even an alumna of JMC like I am.

While it was natural for me to think about Michigan State, I didn’t know much about Madison. I knew I wanted to study something with an international focus. I attended an informational session about residential college experiences, and when I heard about the focus of JMC on international affairs, I had that moment where I looked at my mom and was like, “This is it.”

Which activities did you participate in, and how did they contribute to your growth?

Well, I worked a lot. By chance, I got a job working for the Breslin Center as part of the events staff. I thought I was applying for a job in catering, but it turned out to be a security job. I didn’t think it would be something I’d want to do, but I did it all four years and loved it!

My roommate encouraged me to get involved with Student Senate our senior year. She was very involved and since she was already attending weekly meetings, it was easy to tag along. It was another one of those opportunities I did on a whim, and it turned out to be something I really enjoyed and wished I would have done sooner.

Shannon in Israel at the beach.
Shannon stands at the top of Masada in Israel.

I also did a study abroad one summer in Israel.

What was it like to study in Israel?

There was a small group of MSU students who went on this trip, and the classes I took counted for JMC.

I hadn’t previously considered Israel, but I’m so glad I found the program. My classes were at Hebrew University where I was taught by both a Hebrew University professor about the history of Israel and an MSU professor who taught comparative religions. The best part about studying religion in Israel was being in the place where these religions began. Multiple times a week our lessons were on sight where we could see the buildings and sites where everything actually occurred.

Shannon Riley standing in Israel
Shannon stands in front of Temple Mount in Israel.

Which JMC classes or professors do you recall most vividly?

Following my study abroad experience, Professor Aronoff taught a class about Israeli-Palestinian relations and to this day, that class was really memorable. Throughout the class, Professor Aronoff did a really good job pushing us to examine all sides of the conflict between Israeli and Palestinian people. For one of our final papers, we had to make a case for the viewpoint opposite of our own. I continue to take that lesson with me because it taught me to think about all of the perspectives and layers of a problem or conflict. There’s not always an easy answer, but looking at an argument from another way may get you closer to a resolution.

What about your Madison experience shaped your success since graduating?

Madison gave me the opportunity to learn a lot about more about the world around me. Teaching me how to think critically and analytically about current events and history and why people live and think the way they do. We’re all shaped and molded by our experiences and the world around us and being able to recognize those differences sometimes helps us to find common ground. Those skills have served me in nearly every opportunity I’ve pursued.

When I graduated, I joined the Peace Corps wanting to continue with international experiences. With studying abroad in Israel and a previous trip at the end of high school to Jordan, I made the decision to apply and was selected to teach English in Namibia.

You have had some amazing international experiences, but now you work in cybersecurity in Washington D.C. How did that come about?

A few months after returning from the Peace Corps, I moved to Washington D.C. to work for the Department of Education in their privacy office. It was during this time that I began learning how privacy is at the intersection of law, policy and technology.

Shannon accepting award for Peace Corps service
Shannon during her Close of Service with the Peace Corps.

In 2019, I had the opportunity to take a cybersecurity skills training, which led to certifications in cybersecurity and incident handling. Soon after, I left the Department of Education to go work for the Department of Homeland Security’s cyber component, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. At CISA, I’m a privacy analyst working primarily with their cyber division and managing privacy risk. It’s a fairly new agency and very exciting place to work at right now.

How has JMC informed your ideas about the world today?

Madison did a really good job offering classes that covered a wide range of topics domestically and internationally. Having the ability to learn about things that are so distant from my life personally, helps to inform the global citizen I continue to grow into today. My JMC education fostered my desire to continuously learn and have that global awareness.

At the end of the day, everyone is just trying to do the best with what they have. I try to take myself out of my own personal experience and gain different perspectives through different lenses. JMC helped me recognize how one person’s experience shapes the stories they tell and that how we consume those stories is based on our experiences.

There’s always going to be conflict and strife from those differences but, maybe once we see where we’re all coming from, we’ll be more empowered to find common ground.

What advice would you share with prospective students who are considering MSU and James Madison?

If there are students out there considering Madison, know you have the best of both worlds at JMC. All of the resources and experiences that come with a big university and the benefits and support of a small college in one.

Having a close community of peers, professors and staff and everything I needed right in one place, made the college experience one-of-a-kind. Opportunities as a JMC student and alumnus are expansive; at every stage of my career so far, I’ve come across Madison alums. From the Peace Corps to cybersecurity training courses, a JMC education can get you anywhere.