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Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures

Daniel H. Hantman ’03

Senior Counselor to the Director, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

Late in the spring of my sophomore year, I made the two best decisions of my college career almost literally overnight: to spend a semester in Latin America and to concentrate in the newly created Department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures (SPO). I had been exposed to excellent teachers and material in many departments, and I was vacillating at length over my choice of major. One Sunday evening, I went to Firestone Library to pull books for a writing assignment on South American poetry. I found myself engrossed in that part of the stacks for hours and—even though I already had taken several Spanish literature courses—had the sudden realization that I should dedicate my upperclass years to the subject matter. I can’t say that I recommend this kind of abrupt, gut-check decision process for selecting a concentration, but in my case the outcome was the right one.

What validated my choice from day one was the strength and accessibility of the SPO faculty. They strove to cultivate a perfect balance of flexibility and close attention for concentrators in the department. As a result, I had the latitude to take on unconventional academic challenges, of the kind not always ventured by undergraduates. And the intimacy and collegiality of the department ensured that I always found the support I needed to see the endeavor through, whether it be writing a dense junior paper in Spanish or enrolling in an advanced graduate seminar at a South American university. The great reward for me was an environment that encouraged the highest ideals of a liberal arts education: wide-ranging curiosity, independent thought, and demanding intellectual standards.

From language to federal law

During my senior year, I applied to several U.S. law schools, and I found my SPO credential served me very well in that process. Indeed, after I arrived at law school, I felt ready to take on the rigors of that program and private practice at a major law firm thereafter. I worked in intellectual property and media law in New York for several years before leaping into the Obama presidential campaign in 2008. From there I joined the new administration in D.C., at first as a lawyer at the White House. I now serve as senior counselor to the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency responsible for administering the nation’s lawful immigration system, including the naturalization process and the asylum and refugee programs. I work on a fascinating array of policy, communications, and management issues, ranging from visa issues for artists and entertainers to refugee issues in the Middle East and Africa.

It would be a stretch to say that my academic work in SPO directly prepared me for these professional experiences, particularly within a specialized vocation like the law. But it did cement in me an eagerness for tackling difficult, novel subject matter with much care and thought. It left me confident about my capacity to master dense, voluminous, and unfamiliar information quickly. Above all, it left me keenly attuned to the value of communicating well. These are the hallmarks of a concentration in language and literature, and I was lucky to absorb them as a SPO concentrator.

I would recommend that Princeton undergraduates take a less impulsive approach to choosing their concentration than I did. But I would encourage them all to seek out a department that offers an environment as well suited to their intellectual priorities as the SPO environment was for me.