Photo Courtesy of Kate Pundyk
“My parents taught me never to underestimate rural people and what they’re capable of doing or understanding,” Kate Pundyk ’22 explained. Hailing from the Crowsnest Pass in Alberta, Canada, where the population hovers around 5,000, Pundyk learned this lesson at a very young age. And if anybody continues to doubt what someone from a rural background can do, they should take a long look at Pundyk — now a Rhodes scholar — and reconsider.
The Crowsnest Pass: ‘She was a Curious George’
The Crowsnest Pass is a small coal-mining town, and she looks back fondly on the tight-knit community from her youth. The town has more than its fair share of bitter history, including labor conflicts, landslides in the mines and natural disasters. Pundyk believes that this history of hardship brings the people there together.
“It was instilled from a very young age that people look out for one another,” Pundyk said. “And this comes from a long history of coal-mining disasters. All of this tenacity is ingrained in you — everyone in the town has a resilience [that] is pretty special. I don’t think I realized at the time, but I really got the spirit of being from a small town.”
When she talks about the morals she learned growing up, it’s impossible not to connect those values to the humanitarian focus that earned her a Rhodes scholarship. Pundyk’s scope has expanded, but ultimately, much of her work centers around protecting others.
She intends to spend her time in Oxford next year pursuing a master of sciences in social data science and a Master of Philosophy degree in sociolegal research. This will allow Pundyk to build upon her already impressive work studying the connection between the digital world and human rights violations: how social media enables mass atrocities, but also how it can be used to bring perpetrators to justice.
There are no straightforward paths to a Rhodes scholarship, but Pundyk’s journey is perhaps more unconventional than most. The Crowsnest Pass is known primarily for its history and location in the Rocky Mountains, not churning out future engineers, policymakers and Rhodes scholars.
Her father, John Pundyk, described her as “a Curious George growing up, always asking how and why … And once she started doing something, she stuck with it until it was done.” She brought this intense mindset to both the classroom and dance competitions, achieving tremendous success in each area.
When Pundyk was 16, she won a scholarship to study at Li Po Chun United World College, or LPCUWC, in Hong Kong. That moment kicked off a chain of events that spanned four countries, three continents, two colleges and culminated in one Rhodes scholarship.
Hong Kong: “It’s always worth it to stand up”
Paul Hart, one of Pundyk’s teachers and mentors and LPCUWC, describes her as a standout student from day one. Hart, who also hails from Alberta, immediately saw a great deal of promise in his fellow Canadian. When talking about her academic excellence, Hart called attention to Pundyk’s gift for collaboration as one of her most important skills.
“She drove discussion and forced her classmates to keep up with her constant desire to learn more and become better,” Hart said. “She is compassionate and thoughtful about the needs of others … Kate makes her peers better and that’s one of the highest compliments I can pay her.”
However, when talking about her time in Hong Kong, Pundyk didn’t spend much time discussing her time in school. Instead, she chose to focus more on the lessons she learned outside of the classroom.
She landed just a few weeks before fresh conflicts flared up as the Chinese Communist Party cracked down on democracy in the region. For a young student from a small town in Canada, it felt like a complete culture shock.
“I was just this wide-eyed kid who didn’t understand how the world worked,” Pundyk said. “And I was just schooled early on by Hong Kongers about what it actually looks like to stand up for your rights … Seeing kids with umbrellas against police with batons and tear gas is really seared into my memory. What the Hong Kong case taught me specifically was that it doesn’t matter your odds of success, it’s always worth it to stand up.”
Wellesley: “Your life should be for the service of others”
After two years abroad, Pundyk returned to the States to enroll in Wellesley College. She spent two years there, taking advantage of courses both within the college and enrolling in classes at MIT as well. Pundyk would often spend her morning in social science classes at Wellesley before taking the bus across town for afternoon science classes in Cambridge.
If Hong Kong showed Pundyk that she had the power to right injustices, Wellesley taught her that she had an obligation to do so. The school’s motto, “Not to be ministered upon, but to minister,” struck a chord with Pundyk, albeit not in the intended religious sense.
For Pundyk, this mantra manifested itself in two ways. First, she said that she realized that “your life should be for the service of others.” And second, she explained, “Your job, as a woman particularly, is to not only break a pathway for yourself but also to drag as many women with you as you can.”
Like in Hong Kong, Pundyk once again took advantage of learning opportunities outside of the classroom during her time as a student at Wellesley. As a first year, she found her first real job at the MIT Little Devices Lab, which explores how low-cost products can be used to manufacture medical devices. Pundyk found herself getting more involved in the policy history of the need for these alternatives.
From there, she also found a summer job with a start-up called Biobot Analytics, which used health information gathered from sewage materials to diagnose communities. The group initially focused on looking at opiate concentrations in specific communities to advise city governments on where to send resources. Pundyk found herself more involved with the political aspect of the work, pitching the product to city officials. Her affinity for public policy continued to grow in this job, and the next year, Pundyk continued her policy work in a completely different sector.
London: “The extra things are part of my education”
As a sophomore in 2018, Pundyk worked on the planning committee on the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit as the youth policy lead. Pundyk’s role focused on finding ways to engage young people at the summit.
As she took on this new challenge, Pundyk remained enrolled in classes at Wellesley. Working with her counterparts in London meant waking up for five o’clock Zoom calls, rescheduling exams and finding time for trips to meet in person. Pundyk expressed gratitude to Wellesley for allowing and even encouraging her to join the group. “A lot of schools would have said, ‘Too bad. You’re a student.’ Wellesley was very much of the mind that doing the extra things are part of my education.”
After the summit, as Pundyk was looking for a summer job, she decided that she wanted to return home. In 2015, Rachel Notley was elected as the first Progressive Premier of Alberta in over four decades. Pundyk decided that she wanted to be a part of such a historic moment in her home province. She begged for a job and managed to find a summer internship working as a staffer for Notley.
Alberta, part II: “They let me speak my mind”
Within two weeks, Pundyk faced a problem. A good problem, but a problem nonetheless. She had the opportunity to join the staff full-time. Even though she was working for a politician she believed in, it was a difficult offer to accept. It would mean taking a leave from Wellesley. Ultimately, Pundyk accepted the offer on the advice of her dean. As Pundyk explained, “the thing that pushed me to leave Wellesley was actually the mission of Wellesley: getting young women out into the world.”
Pundyk remained in Alberta working with the issues management team until the government lost the next election in 2019. She described her role as that of a miscellaneous problem-solver. Her group found ways to anticipate future problems or deal with unintended consequences of government programs.
The lessons she had learned as a young girl about never underestimating the abilities of rural people returned to the foreground. Pundyk brought a unique perspective to the group. And despite being one of the youngest members of the team, Pundyk never felt like her voice got drowned out.
“It was a job where my experience mattered a lot,” she said. “Many Progressive centers of power are in urban settings, so to be in that office as someone from a small town, it was really cool to highlight the work of rural progressives, [and my fellow staffers] always wanted to hear what I wanted to say and let me speak my mind very openly.”
Pundyk’s experience on Notley’s staff made her acutely aware of the dangerous impacts of technology on politicians’ ability to govern. She and her fellow staffers dealt with misinformation on many fronts, especially regarding climate change. They found Twitter bots intentionally sowing dissent within Alberta, leading to a more polarized political climate.
So as Pundyk decided to return to school, the dangers of technology were on her mind. While she had loved her time at Wellesley, she decided that it was time for her to continue her work somewhere new. Pundyk explained that one reason for leaving was that “You can’t step in the same river twice.” She decided to apply to Yale specifically because of the research opportunities it provided in the fields of technology and politics.
Yale: “She brought a whole other level”
In her first week at Yale, Pundyk got coffee with her data governance professor, Nathaniel Raymond of the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. Immediately, the two understood that their passions were aligned. Raymond says that Pundyk excelled in his class because “she brought a whole other level of previous research and real-world experience that was unlike any other undergraduate … She knew exactly what her focus was, and she had a level of not only knowledge, but her skills were significantly more developed.”
Pundyk also started writing for the Yale Daily News and quickly rose to the position of SciTech editor. Her technical knowledge and experience made her a natural fit at the desk. For Pundyk, she enjoyed learning how to write about technical issues. However, of even greater importance, she enjoyed how reporting enabled her to meet fascinating new people through interviews around campus.
In her second semester, Pundyk took a class with David Simon, dean of studies of political science. He shared Raymond’s sentiments about her skills. Simon, who also heads the Genocide Studies Program at Yale, happened to be starting a new research group in collaboration with Raymond, called Mass Atrocities in the Digital Era.
The program focuses on studying how digital media can be used to bring perpetrators of mass atrocities to justice, how media can be used to memorialize victims and how it can be used to prevent such crimes.
Pundyk was an obvious fit for the group with her passion for and skills in that specific field of study. She joined and has been instrumental in developing the group’s identity. Simon explains, “She’s the only current undergraduate on the current team of five, but there are times when we all turn to her because we’re so confident that she has her own fresh and insightful take on this wide range of issues that we address.”
Beyond her skills and unique perspective, both Raymond and Simon highlighted the fact that Pundyk is a great team member. She pushes the other group members to think differently. Even in the moments of disagreement within the group, Pundyk’s opinion brings “a different level of thoughtfulness to the conversation.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Pundyk continued working with the group remotely. Over the summer, she worked with the Ryerson Leadership Lab, a think tank in Canada. There, she continued her exploration of social media in the political realm, researching whether Facebook had complied with new election laws in Canada.
Her work at the SciTech desk also became unexpectedly critical when the coronavirus pandemic began in Spring 2020. Pundyk took the time to speak with Yale’s world-class researchers to deliver critical health information to the News’ readers. This included both Yale-specific COVID-19 updates as well as information about the pandemic relevant to a global audience.
Rhodes scholar: “We’re just in awe”
In Canada, as in America, some people tend to be skeptical about what people from a rural background can do. For one thing, students from rural towns are nearly 10 percent less likely to participate in post-secondary education. Furthermore, while Pundyk had nothing but praise for the teachers from her youth, rural schools across Canada tend to suffer from a relative lack of funding. In smaller, rural environments it also is more difficult to pursue specific interests at a high level.
Because of these factors, Pundyk described feeling doubted at various points along her journey. But she never questioned her own capabilities. And next year, the girl from a coal-mining town in Alberta is heading to the Oxford Internet Institute to study how technological infrastructure affects government policy.
All of this is only the beginning. The Rhodes scholarship is just another step in Pundyk’s journey. If anything, it marks the beginning of greater things rather than the culmination of past achievements. John Pundyk got a little emotional as he described his daughter’s achievement. “We [John and his wife Lorraine] are just in awe of our child’s achievement,” he said. “We did not expect this. The odds were very long.”
Raymond took a different, more confident tone regarding the award: “When she told me she was applying for the Rhodes, I told her, ‘You’re gonna get it.’ I was overjoyed when I heard the news, but I wasn’t the least bit surprised.”