Sam Harshbarger smiling

Princeton senior Sam Harshbarger wins Rhodes Scholarship

Princeton University senior Sam Harshbarger has been awarded a Rhodes Scholarship for graduate study at the University of Oxford.

Harshbarger is among 32 U.S. recipients of the prestigious fellowships, which fund two to three years of graduate study at Oxford. In a statement, Ramona I. Doyle, American Secretary of the Rhodes Trust, said of this year’s Rhodes Scholars representing the United States, “They inspire us already with their accomplishments, but even more by their values-based leadership and selfless ambitions to improve their communities and the world.”

Rhodes Scholars are chosen from more than 70 countries. Individual countries announce their recipients on different schedules.

Harshbarger, of Cranbury, New Jersey, is concentrating in history and is also pursuing three minors: in history and the practice of diplomacy; Near Eastern studies; and Russian, East European and Eurasian studies. At Oxford, he will pursue an MPhil in history. He will begin his studies there in October.

He is a member of the Behrman Undergraduate Society of Fellows, a group of juniors and seniors committed to humanistic inquiry. He is also a student fellow of the Center for International Security Studies and an undergraduate fellow of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.

Harshbarger is fluent in Spanish and Turkish, with advanced proficiency in Azerbaijani and Russian. He said his senior thesis — tentatively titled “Between Cold War and Decolonization: Turkey and Post-Colonial Afro-Asia, 1951-1960” — analyzes Turkey's participation in the Bandung Conference of 1955 and its relationship with North African anti-colonial nationalists. He is the recipient of the Lawrence Stone and Shelby Cullom Davis Thesis Prize Fellowship.

Sam is a once-in-a-generation academic talent,” said Natasha Wheatley, assistant professor of history, who met Harshbarger when he took her “History of International Order” course in spring 2021. “His exceptional academic work is fueled by a boundless curiosity, an expansive humanist ethos and deep moral engagement in the contemporary world."

Wheatley served as Harshbarger’s thesis adviser over this past summer until she went on maternity leave this fall. Michael Laffan, the Paula Chow Professor in International and Regional Studies and professor of history, is his current adviser.

“Reading Sam’s work, one often forgets that one is reading a student — let alone an undergraduate student,” Wheatley said. “Indeed, Sam has been doing graduate level work for quite some time. His multilingualism corresponds to a profoundly cosmopolitan outlook: to a highly unusual degree, Sam can truly see the world from many different perspectives.

While participating in exchange programs in Russia in high school, Harshbarger became interested in Turkey because of its link to the former Soviet Union across the Black Sea and to the Middle East to its south. Before starting at Princeton, he took a gap year as a policy fellow with the Washington, D.C.-based Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF), working part of that time from Turkey with SETF’s cross-border humanitarian assistance to communities in northwestern Syria.

When Harshbarger began his Princeton studies in fall 2020, classes at the University were still remote due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He bought a one-way ticket back to Istanbul — not knowing when he would return to Princeton. There, his days began at 8 a.m. with a three-hour group Turkish language class, followed by afternoons continuing his work with SETF as director for Congressional strategy — and, because of the time difference, Princeton classes and coursework in the evening until the early hours of the morning.

In his personal statement for his Rhodes application, he wrote that his interest in how geopolitics, history and journalism intersect was sparked when the Azerbaijani Army advanced into the Armenian-held region of Nagorno-Karabakh on Sept. 27 that fall. “I resolved then to study history with an eye towards unraveling the nationalism and historical memory that lay behind this violence,” he wrote.

In spring 2021, when Harshbarger returned to campus, he took a survey course on the history and cultures of the Caucasus taught by Michael Reynolds, associate professor of Near Eastern Studies and co-director of the Program in the History and Practice of Diplomacy.

“Although just a first-year student, Sam tackled the assignments like a graduate student, reading with the intent not just of assimilating unfamiliar facts but to uncover the logics shaping the authors’ narratives,” said Reynolds, who was Harshbarger’s adviser on his junior paper.

“Sam combines a first-rank intellect with a true zeal for exploring and understanding the societies and cultures of greater Eurasia and the Middle East,” Reynolds said. “He is a quiet but driven, energetic, independent and entrepreneurial young man who will leave a mark on the world.”

In spring 2021, Harshbarger also took "International News: Reporting on Rising Nationalism in Europe," a course in the Humanities Council’s Program in Journalism, taught by NPR’s then-Athens correspondent Joanna Kakissis. While making an audio feature on the politics of Syrian refugees in Turkey for an assignment, he began to consider a career in journalism and think tank research.

Throughout his time at Princeton, Harshbarger returned to Istanbul every summer and winter break as his home base for research in the region. On campus, he has applied his insights from these experiences as an international policy associate with Princeton’s Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination.

He received the Shapiro Prize for Academic Excellence in Sept. 2022. He is a member of Forbes College.

Outside of his academic work, he is a research assistant focused on Turkish foreign policy with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a Philadelphia-based think tank. He has also worked as an international affairs research analyst with Bechtel, an international construction and engineering firm; a research assistant with New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, a think tank in Washington, D.C.; and the Evergreen Strategy Group in Washington, D.C.

Harshbarger was in New York City when he received the news of his Rhodes Scholarship. After three years in which the American Rhodes Scholars were elected entirely virtually, interviews with candidates took place in person this year.

Upon learning he had won, Harshbarger said: “I was in a state of disbelief. I called my family as soon as I got the chance.”

About going to Oxford, he said: “I'm so excited to meet my classmates and learn from world-class faculty, such as Professor Zbig Wojnowski, who focuses on the history of Ukraine, Russia and Central Asia.”

After his Rhodes studies, Harshbarger intends to return to Istanbul to pursue a career focused on the transnational politics of conflict across Eurasia, either as a journalist or with a think tank.