By T.J. Sjostrom
WASHINGTON – On behalf of my teammates at The SAIS Observer, we are crestfallen about the passing of Kathryn Knowles, a beloved adviser, SAIS alumna and friend at the SAIS Europe campus in Bologna. Today is an incredibly sad day for the European and Eurasian Studies (EES) program, the student body at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and for the alumni of the EES program and Bologna campus.
Her official job title was assistant EES director, but was really much, much more than that. She coordinated communications at the Bologna campus and provided leadership for the Bologna Seminar Series in addition to her day job. She was much more than her official and unofficial jobs: she was a leader, a mentor and a friend. She was more than that, even. She was a mother to a three-year-old boy. She was a wife. She was only five years older than me, and just felt like that big sister or aunt that you wish you had growing up. She was also a supporter of The SAIS Observer. Words will not adequately express her impact on me, the student body, every EES student or every Bologna alum of this great school who had the pleasure of knowing her. Everything about KK was joie de vivre—such a vivacious, warm, tenacious, and positive person. She loved all of us like a mama bear. My fondest memory of Kathryn was how we would always talk about our kids—in fact, I think over half of our overall conversations were about each other’s kids. When my son visited in Bologna in March, Kathryn was the first person we paid a visit to. She was so kind to him, in a way as if she’d always known him. She gave him a SAIS hat, which he proudly wore for the duration of his vacation with me. The last time I saw her, it was with her son at an EES get-together. Finally getting to meet him, chopping down fake bushes and playing with his dump trucks made me happy. This hurts; not just me, but the entire SAIS family.
KK, you touched us all. Those who had the pleasure of knowing you became better scholars, planners and people as a result. We will miss your infectious smile, your polka dot helmet, your humor, your wisdom—we will miss you. My sincerest condolences go out to her husband, son, family, friends, colleagues, and SAIS community.
Dani Thompson (Deputy editor-in-chief at The SAIS Observer): It’s not often that you meet someone like Kathryn. I’m not just saying that either—I truly mean it. Her energy level, enthusiasm and overall passion for SAIS was infectious. The first time I met her, she looked me directly in the eyes and with a sternness I had rarely experienced before told me, “SAIS is the best international relations program in the country. You’re coming to SAIS.” And I did.
In fact, that was the general trend of my time in Bologna: I followed Kathryn’s advice. We all did, and we all secretly called her KK because that’s how she signed her emails. I still to this day don’t know if she was aware of that, but I’m 95% sure she was and that thought, it was funny.
Whenever I had a problem, a question, a schedule change or the general anxiety that comes with choosing classes, I spoke to KK. She tore apart my résumé, completely rewrote my cover letter and helped negotiate my summer internship in Brussels. When she believed in you, she moved heaven and earth to make sure you had every advantage. Especially if you were EES. She was loyal like that.
I can’t imagine what her family is going through right now. All I can say is that the SAIS community is with you. Whatever you need, we are with you.
And KK, we all miss you. A lot.
Cecilia Panella (Outreach and external sourcing director at The SAIS Observer): For times like this when we have lost not only a colleague but also a friend and mentor, our words and actions here today require us to do more than simply eulogize. Kathryn Knowles was a deeply passionate woman who pursued intellectual excellence and dedication to the betterment of SAIS with an unmatched ferocity. Her intellect, sharp wit and unyielding dedication to students, faculty, and staff at SAIS are represented in the hundreds of students that she advocated for and helped each year. The SAIS community as a whole has lost a lion, and the Bolognesi shall keenly and deeply miss her quick step in the hallways and the brightly-colored bicycle helmet kept close at hand. We are who we are because of people like Kathryn, who have pushed us past our worst and encouraged us towards our best. May her guidance be evident and her kindness felt by future generations of SAISers.
Will Davis (Copy editor at The SAIS Observer): This world is filled with many “good people”: kind, compassionate, generous, selfless. To say that Kathryn Knowles possessed these traits would be only scratching the surface of her incredible character. She had a rare gift of being able to search out the positives in anyone she came across and inspire them to radiate their self-confidence. Radiate—that’s one of the many words that will come to mind when I remember our short friendship. She radiated positivity and ambition.
When I came into SAIS, I was insecure about my own abilities in comparison with many other SAISers, and during the fall semester in Bologna, I found myself questioning if coming to the program was the right choice. Then in the spring, I was introduced to Kathryn who immediately started to work on me. She tore down not only the language in my cover letters, but the ways in which I thought about myself. “Will, you’re not a Spanish teacher from South Carolina anymore. You’re a quirky researcher who’s traveled to conflict zones. Build from that.” I regret I wasn’t able to express to her more how she impacted me at a critical juncture in my life, and I’ll forever honor her rich legacy as one of the hundreds of individuals who were positively affected by this incredible woman. Pace e amore alla sua famiglia ed a tutta la famiglia à Bologna.
Patrick Kelley (SAIS ’17, former editor-in-chief of The SAIS Observer): Kathryn was a tireless advocate for all of her students—including those who were not in EES. More important: she was a friendly face and a great person. RIP.
Ramona Viglianisi (SAIS ’17, former staff writer of The SAIS Observer): Kathryn Knowles was the reason why I can call myself an economist today. Two years ago I stepped into her room whining about some rejections and will always remember that phrase she told me: “Ramona, you are a strong and intelligent young woman. You got this.” She sat with me and helped me figure out what to say, what to write. She taught me the right words and corrected my Italenglish (I owe most of my professional vocabulary to her). Very few people did what she did for me. And finally, the offer from the former prime minister’s financial consulting firm in Italy arrived. When I feel discouraged, I think about those words. I keep repeating that saying thank you is not fair enough.
Maria Gershuni (SAIS DC, EES): I talk a lot about how much I loved my summer in Moscow, and how I enjoyed my experience there. But that experience only happened because of the hard work of one fantastic, beautiful, and brilliant woman: EES Director Kathryn Knowles. It’s with a heavy heart that I learned today that she has passed. Kathryn has changed my life in a way that few have, pretty much saving it by giving me a summer that changed me. And yet, someone who I credit with saving my life has had her own life cut short by a devastating illness. From halfway across the world, this woman hustled connections, edited résumés and did the impossible for SAIS students because she cared. She was a pillar of the SAIS community and needs to be remembered. Rest in peace, Director Knowles. I owe you so, so much.
Judit Vasarhelyi-Kondor (SAIS ’13): I don’t know Maria personally, but it seems we share so much through Kathryn. I was one of the first students Kathryn hired at BIPR (Bologna Institute for Policy Research). We went from working together for one semester, to another one, and then another month in the summer. She was the best boss I’ve ever had. She was a role model. She was a mentor. Later, she became a friend. She was a badass woman and an ardent feminist. She made me read Lean In and kicked me in the butt every time I said I was not sure whether I was able to do something. When I got my first post-SAIS job offer, she took me out for Jamba Juice and told me she would never talk to me again if I didn’t negotiate my salary. She told me she didn’t care if I had to close my eyes while having this conversation, but I had to call my future boss and tell him I wanted more money (“I don’t even need to know how much they offered you, believe me, there is room for more.”) We rehearsed the call. That discussion increased my salary by 20%. Six years on, I still have “What would KK do?” moments at work all the time. She was an unapologetic workaholic, and still, she said that becoming a mother was the best thing that happened to her. Last time I saw her, she let me work from her office, then we had lunch at Giulio’s and we talked about everything from Italian politics to nail salons in D.C. I complimented her on her shoes and said that I grew out of wearing high heels in Bologna. “Never happened to me,” she replied, laughing. She looked impeccable every damn day. It last happened literally just yesterday that a friend from Berlin asked me if I knew “that amazing lady” at SAIS Europe. I cannot believe that she is not going to be in Bologna when I get in this weekend, and I certainly cannot explain in brief summary the impact she had on me, my peers and so many European Studies students who came after us. But I share Maria’s sentiments: “She was a pillar of the SAIS community and needs to be remembered.” Carissima, ci mancherai tantissimo!
Anna Berger (SAIS DC, International Law and Organizations): I was so very sad to hear about the passing of Kathryn Knowles this morning. Kathryn was one of my bosses at the Bologna Institute for Policy Research this past school year and was the reason that I got the incredible opportunity to intern for a Russian organization in Moscow this past summer. She went above and beyond to help me and the other Moscow-bound students with the process of getting visas and arranging for travel and housing, constantly managing contacts at the Consulate of Russia in Milan, at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and at the Russian International Affairs Council in order to make the process as easy for us as possible. At one point, she even offered to travel to Milan during exam week to get our visas for us so that we could concentrate on studying. She was always so enthusiastic and energetic and genuinely happy to help. I am very grateful for the opportunities I got to have because of Kathryn and so sad that future generations of Bologna students won’t get the chance to work with her.
T.J. Sjostrom is the editor-in-chief of The SAIS Observer and a second-year EES concentrator at the SAIS DC campus. His work is also seen on The Defense Post and is a research intern and contributor for FPRI Eurasia’s BMB Russia website.