Near Eastern Studies
Alexandra T. Schimmer ’98
Chief Deputy Solicitor General, Office of the Ohio Attorney General
I chose the Near Eastern studies department for two key reasons. First, I was drawn to the idea of a comparative and interdisciplinary major. It proved to be a wonderful way to harmonize my passions for history, literature, and religious studies and not to have to make a stark choice among them. During some semesters, I focused on my study of Arabic language and literature; during other semesters, I delved deeply into Islamic and Jewish law and history. Yet all of these studies cohered to inform an understanding of one of the most complex and intriguing regions of the world.
Second, I came to Princeton in 1994 having attended only Jewish religious schools for my entire life. As part of trying to figure out who I was as a person, I wanted to explore new territory. So I decided to study Arabic and Islamic history, with a view toward spending time in an Islamic country, which I did. With the department’s financial support, I spent the summer before my senior year in Fez, the religious and cultural heart of Morocco. As it turned out, the Near Eastern studies department also enabled me to engage my Jewish educational background on a different level. And the department’s small size, its world-renowned and supportive faculty, and the diverse backgrounds of the department’s undergraduate and graduate students made for an ideal academic home base.
I had decided in my senior year that I wanted to go on to law school, though not right away. After graduating from Princeton, I spent a year in England as a Fulbright fellow, working with a collection of medieval Arabic and Hebrew manuscripts housed at the Cambridge University Library. After that, I attended Yale Law School where, in addition to my coursework, I was involved with the law school’s Middle East Legal Studies Seminar, which brought together Yale professors and students with lawyers, judges, and law professors from the Middle East to explore topics such as constitutionalism and democratization, fundamental rights, and religious pluralism.
After law school, I clerked for two federal judges and came to make Columbus, Ohio, my home. After clerking, I first worked as a litigator at a wonderful law firm in Columbus, and for the past two years have been serving as the chief deputy solicitor general at the Ohio attorney general’s office, where I conduct the state’s major appeals in the U.S. Supreme Court, the Ohio Supreme Court, and the federal circuit courts.
I am certain that my studies prepared me to function successfully in my professional life as a lawyer. The ability to take whatever fact or problem you encounter and set it within a broader understanding, to express thoughts clearly and advance them with both force and sensitivity, to approach the unfamiliar with a sense of openness, and to remove mental obstructions like preconceptions—all are skills that I learned at Princeton and continue to deploy and work on every day as a lawyer. And every time a new case lands on my desk—with the attendant trove of documents and records—I draw upon the skills and thrills from the time I spent at Princeton learning to decipher Geniza fragments and other medieval Arabic and Hebrew manuscripts to figure out the story they were telling.
Even though my daily work does not intersect with Near Eastern affairs, my studies have helped me engage with world events of the past decade on a more informed level, be it by providing valuable historical context, or by allowing me to read Arabic newspapers and listen to radio broadcasts as events across the world unfold.
Indeed, perhaps one of the more valuable lessons from this path is the way the dynamism and instability of our world can render a seemingly offbeat college major extraordinarily relevant in ways that are impossible to foresee in the moment. In the mid-1990s, when I focused my junior independent work on the advent of political Islam (and a group called the Taliban) in Afghanistan, the subject was hardly a blip on the world’s radar. I wish I could boast of real prescience in that; but even to me it was just an interesting far corner of the already distant corner I’d chosen as my field of study. The point, I think, is that the world is increasingly characterized by rapid transformation, and the paths by which we connect to the world and realize our promise are determined by a myriad of forces both foreseen and unpredictable. Following my instinctive interests at Princeton proved a meaningful way to prepare for a life in such a world.