Notre Dame history and peace studies major Brenna Gautam ’15 received the Kroc Institute’s 2015 Yarrow Award, given annually to a student who demonstrates academic excellence and a commitment to service in peace and justice.
“Brenna excelled in her coursework and research,” said Ernesto Verdeja, associate professor of political science and peace studies and director of undergraduate studies at the Kroc Institute. “She successfully combined her research interests with important advocacy work on campus and beyond.”
A native of Clarksville, Tenn., Gautam has dedicated herself to nuclear non-proliferation and arms control. As an undergraduate, she conducted research for the Bureau of International Security and Arms Control in the U.S. State Department and the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, D.C.
She also interned for Democracy for Development, a Kosovo-based think tank, and traveled to Kosovo and Serbia to research Kosovar political parties, as well as the relationship between customs laws and security in various countries.
Gautam is now working as both a research analyst for Wikistrat, a geostrategic analysis firm, and as a legal assistant at Cremer Spina LLC, an international litigation law firm. She is also applying to law schools and plans to begin a program in international law in fall 2016.
As a senior in Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters, Gautam completed a thesis project with guidance from Jaime Pensado, the Carl E. Koch Associate Professor of History.
In what she called “the most challenging academic endeavor” of her undergraduate career, Gautam interviewed citizens of the former Yugoslavia to examine the country’s 1968 student protests and how the sense of youth identity and solidarity created during those events has eroded through subsequent ethnic conflicts.
“The independent research that I conducted for my senior thesis was hugely important for my development—both during college and now as a recent graduate,” she said. “In addition to the valuable time-management skills I gained, it also taught me to allow my sources to construct and inform a narrative—rather than to create a narrative and then seek out sources that would complement that conclusion.
“In my future endeavors of defense law and policy advising, I believe this will help me to reach more accurate conclusions and help me avoid the pitfall of assumptions.”
On campus, Gautam founded a Notre Dame student chapter of Global Zero, an international movement for the elimination of nuclear weapons; led student participation in nationwide nuclear disarmament campaigns; and was co-coordinator of the 2015 Notre Dame Student Peace Conference.
She also conducted research on violence against aid workers and presented a conference paper on grassroots organizing and nuclear disarmament in Istanbul, Turkey.
Her ultimate career goal—to work as a legal adviser focusing on emerging weapons technologies and disarmament—was strongly influenced by her peace studies major.
“My coursework, independent research, and interaction with faculty taught me to view seemingly intractable conflicts, such as the continued presence of nuclear weapons, as transformable,” Gautam said.
And the skills she gained through her history major—asking difficult questions, challenging sources, recognizing biases, and contextualizing arguments—will play a vital role in her chosen profession.
“The ability to think critically has prepared me for my career because I now prioritize fully understanding the context of multiple sides of an argument before making a decision,” she said. “In my current research position, this provides depth to the final product of my written analyses. This skill of approaching evidence critically has also prepared me for law school, where evidence is the backbone of legal arguments.”