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Department: Near Eastern Studies

Matney Near Eastern Studies

Shoshanna Matney ’97

Presidential Management Fellow, Office of the Secretary of Defense

An intellectual framework

My sophomore year I enrolled in a Near Eastern studies (NES) course, “Nationalist Movements from the Balkans to Central Asia.” My reasons for signing up were, in order of importance, it was an afternoon seminar that fit in my schedule, and I thought it might help me understand the communal violence in the Balkans. When at the first class Professor S¸ükrü Haniog˘lu enthusiastically discussed the course and readings, which were in French, German, Russian, and Bulgarian and included primary source documents, political analysis, and literature from the region, I knew this would not be like the other courses I had taken. Throughout the semester Professor Haniog˘lu encouraged his students to explore broadly, challenge ideas, and pursue interests that did not show up on the course syllabus. The intellectual home he created during that semester, and the interdisciplinary approach he promoted as critical to understanding the region, convinced me to explore other courses in the department. By late spring, when I needed to select a major, I knew that NES would give me a uniquely challenging and fascinating undergraduate career.

During my remaining two and a half years at Princeton, I took as many NES classes as I could. I was able to study a region from multiple perspectives, approaching the language and politics, the history and literature. Time after time I was given astonishing free rein in my academic pursuits, and was mentored and challenged by world-class scholars. All of this was possible because I was in a small department that was dedicated to supporting its undergraduate students. This experience created a foundation of skills, nurtured an intellectual curiosity, and created a framework for looking at complex problems, all of which have served me well throughout my post-Princeton career and life.

International career opportunities

My parents’ first reaction to my decision to major in NES was, “I don’t see many want ads for Near Eastern studies majors.” And to some degree, their skepticism was right. You rarely see those ads. But organizations and companies want the same thing from their newly minted college grads, whether they studied ecology or political science: the ability to consume large volumes of information, distill the salient points, and craft solid analyses and arguments. This was expected of me, and taught to me, from day one in my NES classes. After all, there really is no way to sit in a graduate-level class with a world-renowned visiting professor and only one or two other students and get away with shoddy academic performance.

Immediately after graduation I spent a year in Turkey on a Fulbright Fellowship, pursued at the urging of my NES advisers. My experiences there led to several years of work with international nongovernmental organizations in the Caucasus and Central Asia, regions I had studied in NES classes and now had the opportunity to experience firsthand. When I left Afghanistan in 2003 to go business school, I assumed I would be at a disadvantage, both in the classroom and in the job hunt. The reality was the complete opposite. I soon discovered the skills and the approach to dissecting problems I learned in NES transferred cleanly into the business world. In job interviews, potential banking and consulting employers inevitably wanted to discuss what I had learned in NES and the doors it had opened, recognizing the value of that education. Ultimately, I decided to join the Office of the Secretary of Defense, where I have worked on policy and reconstruction issues in Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, and now in Iraq. While none of what I do on a day-to-day basis relates to the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the modern Turkish state, the multidisciplinary approach to problem solving and the mentoring I received by being in a small, regional-studies department continue to open doors for me that I never imagined possible as a sophomore.