Although raised on an Idaho potato farm, Rachel Esplin Odell is now a PhD student in International Relations at MIT with a focus on Asian security issues. Her decision to study Chinese and become an expert in Chinese international affairs occurred while she was an undergraduate at Harvard, and Rachel feels a spiritual draw to being a representative of the Church in Chinese affairs. Speaking eloquently of the sacrifices and balances of being in a dual career marriage with her husband, who is also a PhD student, Rachel talks about her desire to contribute to and draw from her home community and parent her 18-month-old son with her husband.
You grew up in Blackfoot, Idaho but chose to go to Harvard for college. Would you tell me what prompted that decision?
Both of my parents were great examples to me and inspired me to seek as much education as I could get. They taught me to be interested in the world around me and to contribute to the community in which I live.
My dad was a potato farmer and my mom, for most of my coming-of-age years, was a stay-at-home mom but did a lot in the community. When I was younger, neither of them had graduated from four-year college at that point, but they had done quite a bit of travel when they were young.Both of them had their Associates degrees from Ricks College.
So between my dad’s stories of his mission in Argentina and my mom’s stories from her travel to Europe and Japan in her childhood, I became interested in international affairs. So even though I grew up on a potato farm in Idaho, I did have an interest in learning more about foreign cultures and languages and international affairs.
Are you the oldest in your family?
No, I have two older siblings and one younger sister. We are quite spread out in age. My older brother was born with a congenital heart defect and had eight open heart surgeries before he was six years old, so my mom devoted her life to taking care of him at that time. But they felt inspired to have another child and I am so glad they did! A cousin of mine had died of the same disease, so there was concern that it was genetic, but neither I nor my younger sister had any problems. My brother is now married and has three kids and he served a mission and is doing really well. But it was definitely a refining experience for my mom and our family.
My older siblings were involved in speech and debate and student council, so that got me interested in those same things. When I got into high school I did debate as one of my main activities, and we had several topics that looked at international affairs issues. But all along, I was planning on going to BYU for college. My older sister went to BYU. My older brother went to BYU-Idaho. My parents had gone to Ricks.
When I was in junior high, we lost our farm. My mom went back to school with some Department of Labor funding for farmers and their spouses who had lost their farms to go back to school and complete their educations. She earned her Bachelor’s at BYU-Idaho shortly after it became a four-year college. She had done freelance design and photography, so she started teaching adjunct in that field. Then she got her master’s at Boise State in Educational Technology and got a full-time position at BYU-I.
That was while I was in junior high and high school. Seeing her do all of that had a big impact on me too. At this point it was just myself and my younger sister living at home, and my mom always did a good job of putting family first and was a great example to me in that regard. She sacrificed sleep to be able to do work and school and family all at once. My dad, meanwhile, continued to support our family through a job as the executive director of Potato Growers of Idaho. They do cooperative bargaining and lobbying efforts on behalf of potato growers. And our countless conversations over the years about international trade and agriculture and politics and religion have played a major role in shaping my worldview and career trajectory as well.
So tell me about the adjustment to east coast Ivy League culture coming from a potato farm in Idaho. Was it an adjustment, or did you feel like you fit right in?
It was never my plan or goal to go to Harvard. I had always thought that I would want to go to graduate school somewhere outside of BYU, but I was always focused on BYU for my undergrad. But then a series of events right before my senior year convinced me to apply elsewhere too. I was a page in the US House of Representatives and met a lot of kids there who were applying to Ivy League schools. And then I did a debate retreat and we had a guest lecturer who was a professor at American University; he encouraged me to apply to a range of schools as well. So we decided to do a last-minute college tour that fall, and I ended up applying to Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and BYU.
The summer before I was going to start at Harvard, there were some details of my financial aid package that we still hadn’t sorted out and we thought Harvard wasn’t going to work out financially. So I actually decided to go to BYU. I started at BYU that summer and did a summer term. Halfway through the summer term it was time for me to submit my paperwork to withdraw from Harvard. My mom had a prompting that we needed to call the financial aid office one more time. We called them, and it ultimately worked out, which was definitely a miracle.
That experience going to BYU, which I really enjoyed, actually helped a lot in my transition to Harvard because I was able to transition to living away from home but in a familiar culture. That fall at Harvard, academic life in some respects was similar, but then in other ways the culture and the environment was really different. Taking that time at BYU first really helped my transition.
At Harvard, you chose to study China and Chinese. How did you get interested in Asia specifically?
As I mentioned, I’ve always been interested in international affairs. So I “shopped” a class on Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory. The professor was amazing and really engaging, and from the first day really caught my interest. I also took Chinese. Initially I wasn’t planning on becoming a wholesale Asia expert, but I really enjoyed my Chinese classes. Then I studied abroad in Beijing the summer after my freshman year in an intensive language program there. I really enjoyed that, so one thing led to another. I majored in East Asian Studies and did a secondary field in Government. I did an internship at the Office of the US Trade Representative in their China affairs bureau and wrote a senior thesis on China’s behavior in the World Trade Organization.
At graduation time, I still wasn’t totally sure that I wanted to do Asian studies as my ultimate career, but I did know that I wanted to be involved in international affairs and use my Chinese. I had gotten married after my junior year of college, when I had one semester left. My husband Scott was going to college at Georgetown, and he moved up to Boston with me and worked during my last semester after we got married. Then we needed to go back to Washington DC because he had a year and a half left at Georgetown. So I had to find a job in Washington DC, but I didn’t really know how to get into the DC job scene. A fellowships tutor recommended this Carnegie Endowment Junior Fellowship, so I applied. It worked out and I got the job at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a foreign policy think tank in DC.
So that was your first job out of college?
Well, sort of. I actually worked for about seven months prior to starting at Carnegie, piecing together income from several different jobs to pay the bills while Scott finished at Georgetown. I did audio transcription, research assistance for a Georgetown professor, Chinese translation, and yardwork for a neighbor.
Then I started at Carnegie with essentially a one-year post-baccalaureate fellowship, but it turned into a longer-term research position for me. It’s what I did for the next four years. Then, last fall, my husband and I moved back to Boston, where I started a PhD program in political science at MIT—specifically studying Asian security issues. Now I have a non-resident affiliation with the Carnegie Endowment. I am still doing some projects with them, but my PhD program is my primary focus.
Scott and I have had many conversations about the sacrifices we may have to make having dual careers in international relations, especially since we study different places of the world. My husband studies Latin American affairs and environmental issues in the Andean region. I speak some Spanish, so working in Latin America was always a possibility as well. We thought about doing the Peace Corps. But in general we haven’t been able to spend long stretches of time in Asia or Latin America since we got married—more just shorter research and work trips. That’s probably how it will be a lot in our life as we try to spend as much time as possible together and with our family.
So what is your husband doing now that you’re at MIT?
So this was the miracle of a lifetime. We were able to work it out to both do PhD programs in the same place at the same time. He is doing a PhD in geography at Clark University. He studies the effect of environmental degradation on indigenous groups in Latin America. Clark University has a top ten geography program, so we were really fortunate that we could both get into good programs studying exactly what we wanted to. We just feel like it is an enormous tender mercy how it worked out.
What is your goal after the PhD? Are you going back into research and policy, or do you want to teach?
I think that the answer is a combination of both of those things. Scott was also working at a think tank in Washington DC, so we both were in that think tank world studying different regions for the last several years. We appreciated the opportunity to learn more about how the policy process works and contribute to the process in some way, and we would like to be involved in that process in the future, through our research and teaching and consulting.
We really loved our time in DC, but it also was a time for us to evaluate if this was the career direction that we wanted. I’ve come to think that in some ways we have a system in modern American society that does a disservice to people like us and to the communities we came from. For me growing up, my teachers and mentors and parents all told me that I could accomplish all of my dreams and I could be successful and do whatever I wanted. So I always felt like I had to reach for the most esteemed position in whatever field I wanted to pursue. Even if it wasn’t conscious, I got on that treadmill to be the best I could be. That’s why I ended up studying China.
Because it motivated you to challenge yourself?
Yes. Chinese is such a hard language to learn. China is the rising power right now. And so I thought, if you’re going to study international affairs, you’ve got to study China. So I was just following this path.
And I really do love it. But when people ask me why I am studying Asia when I grew up on a potato farm, I don’t always know how to answer. In some ways it doesn’t make a lot of sense. We both really enjoy our current work, but Scott grew up in Logan, Utah, and I grew up in Southeast Idaho. Our parents still live back there and most of our family is west of the Mississippi.
I think that it’s good to experience the world and other cultures and I’m totally an advocate of that and believe in it. But I do think we have a real “brain drain” problem right here in America. Intellectual and industry centers like Boston and Washington DC pull us away from our friends and family and a life that we could be living closer to our families.
I think that there is a tearing of the fabric of the community when that happens. There are so many disconnections in our society because the best and brightest are pulled from high schools all over the country because that is what they think they’re supposed to do. I think it’s valuable to have that exposure and education, but there needs to be more returning back to those home communities, too. I don’t think that there is enough of that.
This is something Scott and I have thought a lot about: how we could return and become part of our home community again.
Is your desire to return for yourselves and for your family life in the future, or is it to give back to the communities in which you were raised? Or a little of both?
It’s definitely both! By no means do we want to leave behind our international training and our degrees. We’re grateful for the path we’re on and we feel like we’ve been led in this direction, which is why we’re pursuing these PhDs. We would like to teach in our fields at universities closer to home and then do relevant policy research. So who knows how it will all work out.
We both really love farming and gardening. We would like to have a small farm. We want our kids to be able to be raised closer to their grandparents and cousins, and for us to be closer to our parents as they grow older. As I was growing up, I never thought, “My parents will be old someday and I will need to be around.” But even though I have other siblings who could care for them, I want to be there and I want my children to be there. Because it’s those relationships that matter most in life.
Of course, it’s not only our family relationships that matter. Our relationships with all of our brothers and sisters in the world matter. That’s part of what drew me to working in international affairs in the first place. But I think in international affairs, there can be too much of a tendency to prioritize people and issues on some faraway continent while neglecting the people that we interact with in our daily lives and the issues in our home communities. I’ve seen examples in my life that have taught me that you need to be a good, Christ-like person in your interactions with people right around you too, not just on the other side of the world.
What has enabled you to get through Harvard and years in Washington and now MIT, with that sort of grounding and perspective? What role has the gospel played in the decisions that you have made on how to craft your life so far?
This is actually a piece of the story of why I ended up studying Asia and international relations. Part of it was a simplistic perception, while I was growing up, that China is this great unmissionized portion of the world. You always hear these apocryphal rumors about how missionaries are being allowed into China. I think that was part of what attracted me to it in the beginning.
Through reading both secular sources and things that have been said by the apostles, my perspective has changed over the years. Elder Dallin H. Oaks gave a talk called “Getting to Know China” in the 1990s at BYU. One thing he said was a lot of times people ask him, “When is China going to open to the Gospel?” And he tells them that China is already open. It is we who are closed.
The Church is present in China. It is growing through a limited amount of proselytizing, family to family, and all very much legal and above the board. I think that I still see myself as being able to play a role in that as a faithful member who is involved in China issues. I think I can have a positive impact on the way the Church is perceived in China and by Chinese officials. We have to realize that missionary work happens differently in different places. I think China is a good example of that. My membership and desire to be a representative of the Church and to get to know other cultures is part of my missionary work.
My faith has also played an important role as I have evaluated the trade-offs I have had to make as I got into my career. Having a family is not compatible with certain kinds of foreign policy careers, and so I’ve had to pursue things that make it possible for me to have the kind of family that I want. For example, at one point I decided to turn down an attractive position working on China affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense in large part because we felt that it was time for us to have our first child and so the timing just wasn’t right for our family.
I think that it’s hard to do everything, to have it all. But that was a positive realization for me. That we have limits in life. That we have to make active choices to do things that will bring us the greatest happiness and bring those we love the greatest happiness. That we have to position ourselves to make a positive contribution to the world, without sacrificing what matters most.
Along that theme, tell me a little about your decision to marry while at Harvard. As someone who was dating while an undergraduate at Yale, I know that marrying is not something those college experiences are built to accommodate, and you make sacrifices to marry while there.
I felt like I sucked all of the marrow out of my first three years of college, so I didn’t really feel like I missed out on too much by deciding to get married after my junior year. I think that made me feel more comfortable with the decision. I feel like I really made the most of my time at Harvard and I learned a lot and grew a lot.
In my sophomore year, I actually called off an engagement. That was a deeply formative choice for me, especially from a spiritual perspective, because I had to learn how to interpret and apply personal revelation in a much more honest way.
When I met Scott, my husband, while I was doing my internship in DC, he was very faithful, committed, and obedient but also very supportive of me and my objectives and my goals in life. That was something that I had not always encountered in previous relationships. I think that it just felt right for us, and we both were committed to making things work out. My roommate at Harvard was also LDS and she actually got married a few weeks after we did. So it helped that we were able to support each other in that decision.
Having dual careers and a family has been complicated at times, and there have been a lot of points when we didn’t know how it would work out. We have had a lot of difficult conversations where we wondered how we were ever going to do this and balance each other’s sacrifices. But the windows of heaven really have been opened and it’s worked out in ways that have been miraculous.
We waited several years to have kids after marrying. We really enjoyed that time together as a couple in DC and getting to know each other better. I think it was very valuable to have that time, just the two of us.
But after a while, we started to feel like it was time for us to both move on to graduate school and start growing our family. We knew it was unusual to have children before starting PhD programs. Actually, it’s pretty much unheard of, especially for women! But we wanted to prioritize having children, so we just went ahead with that first.
Then when I was admitted to graduate schools, everyone was very supportive and accommodating. I ended up deferring for a year, but that too worked out well since my husband and I were able to start our programs at the same time, because he applied the year after I did. I was also able to work at Carnegie part-time and mostly from home during that year. So we were really fortunate that I had that flexibility both from MIT and Carnegie.
How has having a child affected the way you approach your work and family life?
Having a child has added a whole new dimension to our lives. It has definitely complicated things! But it has been immensely joyful, beyond anything else I’ve experienced. And it has actually helped me to develop a new level of self-discipline and efficiency.
It’s also been such a unifying experience for my husband and me—juggling work and school and caring for our son has taught us more than ever before how to truly work as a team. We’ve been able to afford part-time childcare because we got positions as resident tutors in the undergraduate dorms at Harvard, which covers our room and board. But beyond those 20 or so hours of babysitting each week, we trade off taking care of our son, and then spend Sundays and a couple hours each evening all together as a family.
So amidst all of this, we’ve had to learn to be more sensitive to each other’s needs and more willing to make trade-offs to share parenting and work responsibilities evenly and prioritize our time together. It definitely has meant that I can’t always do everything I would have been able to do before, that I often have to just accept that I can’t get everything done that I need to. We’re still learning to balance all of that, but we definitely believe that our Heavenly Parents are helping us figure it out as we go. Which is great, because we figure that if anyone has it figured out, They do.
At A Glance
Rachel Esplin Odell
Location: Cambridge, MA
Marital status: Married to Scott D. Odell in the Idaho Falls, Idaho, LDS Temple, July 25, 2009
Children: One awesome 18-month-old toddler
Occupation: PhD student in political science at MIT, Nonresident Research Analyst at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Schools Attended: Blackfoot High School (2006), Harvard University (AB 2010), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (PhD, in progress)
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: The Dream Isaiah Saw (Scott and I witnessed this performed first at Georgetown University and then several years in a row at the annual Washington National Chorus Christmas concert. My dream is to hear MOTAB perform it someday.)
Interview by Neylan McBaine. Photos used with permission.