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Operations Research and Financial Engineering

Olivier Kamanda ’03

Attorney; Elected Official, Adams Morgan Neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

During my freshman year at Princeton, I couldn’t decide whether to major in philosophy or computer science. I relished the back-and-forth of classroom debates on Socrates and Nietzsche. But I also derived great satisfaction from completing a programming assignment after weeks of wrestling with the code. 

So I split the difference. I chose to major in engineering, and specifically operations research and financial engineering (ORFE), because it develops the most important skill needed in both studies: problem solving. ORFE, like all engineering disciplines, is about taking a large puzzle and breaking it down into smaller, easier puzzles to solve. But what sets it apart is its emphasis on using information as a resource to make decisions. The better you are at analyzing information, the better decisions you make. And the better decisions you make, the better problem solver you become. 

Real-world problem solving

The problems that really excited me lay at the intersection of public policy, community service, and politics. I was in the minority of ORFE majors who graduated without any intention of pursuing a career in finance. In fact, one of my first opportunities to apply the skills I had learned in ORFE was while serving as a young alumni trustee of the University. For four years, I played a small role in guiding Princeton’s long-term planning efforts. The questions with which I struggled while on the Board of Trustees were unlike any I had considered in class. But they broadened my perspective on problem solving in the real world. 

After a few years as a management consultant at the Department of Justice, I decided to go to law school at the University of Pennsylvania. While there, I discovered my passion for foreign affairs. 

During my first year, I launched Foreign Policy Digest, an online magazine aimed at explaining the effect of international events on life in America. We’ve published more than 50 issues and interviewed experts in international law, diplomacy, development, and national security. None of it would have been possible without the foundational courses I took during my senior year. At the time, “strategic planning” and “organizational dynamics” sounded like buzzwords. But those classes empowered me to pursue a labor of love that has since opened many doors.

In 2009, I began serving as a speechwriter and senior adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Although the job never required me to solve a differential equation or design a stochastic model, my degree came in handy. A good speech must be more than rhetoric. It should use data and a compelling argument to inspire the listener to take action—supporting an initiative or donating to a cause. After years of classes on statistics and probability, I not only felt comfortable using numbers to make our case, but I was able to avoid misleading data that could have undermined our credibility.

My studies at Princeton set me up to pursue some great adventures after graduation—ones I couldn’t have planned during my sophomore year even if I tried. Today, I practice law and serve as an elected official in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C. So although your choice of major may seem daunting, there is always time to pursue new interests, develop new skills, and seize new opportunities. This may be your first professional decision, but it certainly won’t be your last. 

Kamanda-Olivier