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Near Eastern Studies

Rachel M. Smith ’03

Economic Officer, U.S. Embassy in Prague

My fascination with the Middle East began long before I came to Princeton. As a child and teenager, I visited Israel several times with my family. During those visits, and throughout my childhood, I learned one narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, during my first two years at Princeton, both my coursework and my fellow students exposed me to a diversity of views that complicated my understanding of the conflict. I studied Hebrew and Arabic, the Qur’an, the Hebrew Bible, religious existentialism, and much more. My professors were amazing, and I became close to several of them.

When it came time to choose a concentration, I was torn between religion and Near Eastern studies. I even briefly thought about creating my own major, having also really enjoyed some courses in the English and comparative literature departments. Ultimately, I opted for Near Eastern studies (NES). The NES department had only a handful of concentrators in those pre-9/11 days, affording me a great deal of personal attention from professors and very small class sizes. Plus, NES was flexible enough to let me count several of the religion courses I wanted to take toward my concentration requirements. I loved being an NES major, and having just looked at Princeton’s current NES course offerings, I wonder if they would let me come back for a semester.

From courses to consulates

During the summer before my senior year, I met a Foreign Service officer serving at the U.S. embassy in Vienna. After a few conversations with him, I knew the Foreign Service was for me. I joined after graduate school (M.A. in Near Eastern studies from New York University) and spent my first tour in Tel Aviv, where I worked as a vice-consul adjudicating visa applications, and later as the ambassador’s staff assistant. For my second tour, I decided to leave my NES comfort zone and explore the Slavic instead of the Semitic. I am currently finishing an assignment at the U.S. embassy in Prague, where I spent my first year as a consular officer and my second year as an economic officer.

So, what value does my NES major hold for me as a Foreign Service officer? Well, in Israel I had a lot of familiarity with the local languages, politics, culture, and history. As you might expect, though, my NES major did not help me too much in terms of those things in the Czech Republic. That’s OK, though, because I would argue that the real value of my Princeton education is independent of my location or particular assignment. I left Princeton after four years with the ability to change my mind, to analyze a topic, to think critically, and to come up with nuanced and thoughtful solutions. Those are the skills I use in my work on a daily basis. My advice to you is to study what you love, what fascinates you, and what makes you enjoy going to class every week. You will leave Princeton well prepared for any career, and more importantly, for life.