Katie Poteet, who grew up on a farm in northern Harford County and is part of the first generation of her family to graduate from college, has been named a valedictorian for the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s spring graduating class of 2021.
Poteet, 21, of Jarrettsville, is one of two valedictorians for her class, which will have its commencement ceremony Friday. Poteet is the valedictorian for UMBC’s College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, the School of Social Work and the Erickson School of Aging Studies.
Poteet, a 2017 graduate of North Harford High School, has earned a bachelor’s degree in global studies and political science, and she minored in Arabic language and culture in college. She also has earned a certificate in Spanish language, is a member of the Honors College and participated in the Sondheim Public Affairs Scholars Program.
In the fall, she will start a master’s in philosophy degree program in education, globalization and international development at Cambridge University in England.
Becoming a UMBC valedictorian was “definitely something that I strove for,” Poteet said. “I was really excited and surprised when I was nominated for it.”
The daughter of Spencer and Wendy Poteet, of Chrome Valley Farm, is a first-generation college graduate, along with her twin sister, Madie, who graduated from Salisbury University last week.
“It was really exciting for me, to be able to make them proud,” Katie said of her parents, noting she also celebrated being a valedictorian with her grandparents.
“Katie’s story represents the best of the American dream,” UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski said in a statement.
“Raised in rural Maryland, she came to UMBC and took full advantage of the opportunities available to her, from studying a variety of languages and cultures, to participating in a range of internships focused on American and global challenges.”
Hrabowski noted that Poteet “excelled, and she has become a citizen of the world, on her way to Cambridge.”
Poteet’s career goals include either working at a think tank or in academia, with a focus on research, specifically about equity in education for women and girls throughout the world. Her desire to work in the research and international affairs fields has been shaped over four years at UMBC, through various internships with organizations such as the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C., as well as forming friendships with peers of different backgrounds.
“I like the idea of being a professor,” she said.
When she started college, Poteet was considering either a career as a social studies teacher — she wanted to be a teacher since childhood — or a career related to diplomacy or foreign service. She said she has had “some really great teachers,” going back to when she attended North Bend Elementary School in Jarrettsville.
“Because of my interest in international affairs, I thought that was a good way to combine it with education,” she said of teaching social studies.
Her interest in working in research and international affairs grew during her time in college. She started in the Sondheim scholars program her freshman year, a program she said is “for anybody interested in pursuing careers in public service.”
Participants are required to volunteer on a weekly basis with a community service organization in the Baltimore area during their first year. Poteet worked with the Esperanza Center in East Baltimore, teaching English to adult immigrants.
The volunteering requirement for Sondheim scholars does not go beyond freshman year, but many program participants continue to do so, including Poteet, who took part in projects such as remodeling a playground at an elementary school in Baltimore and attending local plays on social justice issues.
She interned with the D.C.-based nonprofit Enabling Peace in Iraq Center the summer between her sophomore and junior years. Poteet took part in research on development in Iraq related to humanitarian and security issues, and the findings of EPIC researchers were published in a weekly newsletter available to people who live in Iraq, people who live abroad but have family still in Iraq, as well as government and non-government organization representatives.
Poteet had an internship with the Norwegian Refugee Council, an international humanitarian organization with an office in Washington, during the spring of 2020. She did part of the internship in person and the rest of it remotely as the COVID-19 pandemic began last year.
She assisted with multiple tasks, such as conducting research on bills in the U.S. Congress and U.S. government positions related to humanitarian issues, and how they could affect the NRC’s work. Representatives of the organization, which Poteet said is not a lobbying group, also meet with U.S. officials to inform them about humanitarian crises around the world.
Poteet had a virtual internship with the Brookings Institution’s Center for Universal Education during the summer. Her work involved research on climate change and education, as well as gender equality and education around the world.
“How can we prepare women and girls to participate in the future workforce, which will increasingly be geared toward climate change?” she said of her work.
“How can we teach them skills that they will be able to use in a competitive workforce in the future?”
In the fall of 2020, Poteet had an internship with the Maryland Department of Labor, working with the department’s correctional education team to secure resources for teachers working in state prisons. With that internship, she was not working on issues related to gender, but “it was advocating for an equitable education for a different type of vulnerable population,” she said of prison inmates.
“The Brookings internship was really instrumental for me, in terms of reaffirming that research is a career path where I can combine my interest in international affairs and international relations, and education,” she said.
Poteet’s interest in international affairs and world cultures also stems from coming from the relatively homogenous world of northern Harford to the diverse UMBC campus.
“I was really intrigued by the different ways in which my [college] friends had grown up,” she said.
Poteet had friends who spoke different languages, had immigrated to the U.S. from other countries, or were the children of immigrants.
“It was just really interesting to hear their perspectives on life that were so different from mine,” she said.
Another factor was when she read the book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, her freshman year. She was inspired by stories in the book of women who “came from oppressive environments, but they found ways to overcome that and to become change agents.”
Poteet’s background of growing up on a farm and being active in Harford County 4-H since elementary school also has prepared her for adult life. She raised pigs and cows with help from her father, who also was in 4-H, and proceeds from showing and selling livestock were saved for her college education.
“It was just a really good way to spend time with my dad and learn responsibility, through taking care of animals,” she said.
Poteet has been learning virtually over the past year, living in an apartment at the university and taking all of her classes online. The lessons she took away are “to be adaptable and not to let obstacles hinder my long-term goals.”
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“It’s not how I wanted to end my college career, but I tried to stay focused on my long-term goal,” she said of online learning.