Southampton alumna Katie Passey left the University with a first-class degree in History, an MSc in International Security and Risk, and a lifelong connection to her alma mater. Now, she holds a leading position at international counter-terrorism organisation Moonshot.
When the heavy envelope containing the University of Southampton’s prospectus dropped invitingly through Katie Passey’s letter box, she had no idea about the exciting journey it was about to lead her on: a journey into the mists of the past and the murky shadows of present-day counterterrorism.
Katie remembers that prospectus with great fondness. “I was very impressed because the campus was so green but more because it was actually a real campus. So many places I looked at were really spread out. I hated that vibe. Southampton had a red-brick community feel that I really liked.”
It was a life-changing moment for Katie. She is visibly excited to talk about all the modules offered by the History department. The opportunity to study everything from the Tudors to modern day counterterrorism really appealed to her. “Southampton’s course really pushed boundaries, especially with the emphasis on Jewish history. I was particularly impressed with the Jewish archives collection.”
For Katie, history is about stories. “People’s stories really make history come alive for me,” she says. She enthuses about a grassroots approach to history, placing as much importance on the housekeeper’s diary and activist’s notebook as any military statistics. She is keen to point out that we are all living these stories right now, and tomorrow our lives will be someone else’s history.
“I’ve always enjoyed the modern, cutting-edge side of history. I chose modern modules. I think I was studying Obama whilst he was still President. Every day is history, and every next day contributes to it.”
It was this modern-focused approach to history that drew Katie in the direction of her current career. Though she had only studied two modules on counterterrorism, they stuck with her. She knew she wanted to make a difference and help protect people from extremism.
After her degree, Katie worked in research in parliament and for a non-governmental organisation (NGO). She needed time to work out which element of counterterrorism she wanted to focus on. Then she heard that Southampton had launched a new master’s on International Security and Risk.
“It was a great opportunity to open that horizon and really explore what it was that I wanted to do within counterterrorism.”
Katie initially joined her current firm, Moonshot, working on data analysis. In her first week, the Christchurch terrorist attack occurred in New Zealand and she was flung in at the deep end. Then, seven months later, lockdown changed the way those in counterterrorism worked. “It was a real whirlwind,” she says.
Moonshot is a social enterprise based in London, but with offices in Washington D.C. and in Dublin. A team of around 50 people might seem small, but they have a massive output and a strong position in the counter-extremism industry. Moonshot’s ambitious goal is to end all online harms. This means addressing the global problems of inceldom (self-identified members of an online subculture based around the inability to find a romantic or sexual partner), modern slavery, the far right, gender-based violence, child sexual exploitation and abuse.
Moonshot aims to reduce the threat of terrorism by creating bespoke campaigns to address online harms, with a focus on deradicalisation. The team also analyses social media platforms and the dark web to develop insight to aid interventions. Finally, they train other organisations in intervention strategies.
It is a big job, but Katie has adapted well to the role. Originally signed up for a one-month contract, Katie is still there five years later. Now she is managing her own team and deciding on her own projects. She takes her new management role very seriously. She sees herself as much a coach as a boss, and feels it is important to support her colleagues as much as possible.
“We have to look at a lot of content that’s very difficult and very challenging and very triggering. So it is important to be responsive. My staff know that they can come to me if they have any needs professionally or in their personal lives as well.”
At the end of the day, Katie is still inspired by people’s stories. She stays in contact with her lecturers, describing them as her mentors. She stays connected to her University friendship group, even though her friends are spread across the UK. She even still acts in amateur dramatic performances.
“I was a part of so many societies at Southampton. I was in Theatre Group and Show Stoppers, which are the two amateur dramatics societies. I did two shows a year throughout my degrees and I was also part of Jazz Maniacs, which is Southampton’s Gospel Choir. When I think about my University of Southampton experience, it is those friendships that I made and the opportunities to be able to perform and pursue my hobbies as well as pursuing my interests, both professionally and as a as a degree as well, that stands out. I loved every second.”
It all started when the University of Southampton prospectus dropped through her letterbox. After that, it’s all history.
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