Gonawela went from studying national security to interviewing leading practitioners for The Burn Bag podcast.
Headshot of A’ndre Gonawela
A’ndre Gonawela

A’ndre Gonawela, MPP’21, was six years old when he first met a president. Born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Gonawela’s grandmother was the private secretary to Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Sri Lanka’s first and only female president to date. "I rattled off to President Kumaratunga about dinosaurs," Gonawela said, "but having that conversation sparked my interest in history and politics."

Soon after, Gonawela began reading presidential memoirs and learning more about the civil war raging in Sri Lanka when Gonawela was a child. In 2011, roughly two years after the civil war ended, Gonawela was able to visit Sri Lanka and walk through former battlefields. "I saw bullet-riddled houses and destroyed buildings that were once occupied by Tamil civilians. The scars of war are still prevalent there,” said Gonawela.

“Reflecting on that got me interested in conflict, how to resolve it, and what we can do about international security from the United States’ perspective,” Gonawela said.

Gonawela went on to study public policy at the University of Michigan, with an emphasis on South Asian foreign policy and national security. Within months of starting his undergraduate degree, he was helping Dr. Joyojeet Pal research Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s use of Twitter.

Gonawela soon noticed that Modi’s tweets were laced with barbs against political opponents — not so dissimilar, he noted, to then-candidate Donald Trump. "The project eventually turned into an article comparing the use of negative rhetoric on Twitter during elections by Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Brexit advocate Nigel Farage, and far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders. The article was published in a peer-reviewed journal, and I soon followed it up with another first-authored peer reviewed article on India’s 2019 elections that further investigated online political attacks."

As his undergraduate experience drew to a close, Gonawela chose to pursue a Master of Public Policy (MPP). "I wanted the analytical skills that would take my research to the next level," Gonawela said. "I chose the University of Chicago because I was able to take classes with leading international security experts like John Mearsheimer and Robert Pape, and I was able to construct a master’s degree that put me at the forefront of the newest and emerging national and international security threats.”

In the summer of 2020, between his two years at Harris, Gonawela started The Burn Bag Podcast with a friend from the University of Michigan.

“My idea was that you could do an episode and people would listen in without knowing anything about the subject and walk out knowing how the issue is important and why it matters to the United States and the average citizen. We wanted to start a podcast to make foreign policy accessible to everyone."

Burn Bag guests have including former United States Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) General David Petraeus, foreign affairs specialist Dr. Fiona Hill, and American political scientist Ian Bremmer.

Gonawela hopes to continue becoming a specialist on South Asian security policy, while also advancing his experience in social media research as the platforms continue to present new challenges.

“New and emerging threats around technology, the environment, and public health issues will motivate us to redefine our thinking around the concept and definition of national security,” Gonawela said. "I look forward to contributing to that conversation."