By Monique Thormann | Director of Communications, Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington
Samuel Arnone-Roller, who received his master’s degree in Middle East Studies in June 2023, received a University of Washington David Bonderman Fellowship that will take him to eight countries – Paraguay, Bolivia, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Nepal and the Philippines – starting in autumn for 8 months. Arnone-Roller is one of eight UW students selected for the annual overseas travel award.
Jackson School: Tell us what you will be exploring as a Bonderman Fellow.
Samuel Arnone-Roller: In setting my itinerary I often indulged in personal curiosities and minor connections – recognizing, of course, that the purpose of the Bonderman Fellowship is not research, but personal growth through immersion in new and challenging contexts. Of course, I tried to take advantage of my Arabic and Spanish language education in the planning process, but I would by no means pretend, for example, that studying Modern Standard Arabic would allow me to communicate flawlessly with new friends and acquaintances speaking Darija. Instead, I recognize that these skills simply open new doors for growth to me.
Likewise, I wouldn’t claim any significant familiarity with my destination countries outside of some books, documentaries, and loose connections. But even if I had dedicated my M.A. studies to something like the intricacies of Paraguayan state-society relations, it is undeniable that our perceptions of the world are mediated by vast networks of people with different perspectives that influence our own. For this reason, I think first-hand exposure is often necessary to claim familiarity and even then, remains fallible.
Thus, even as I engage with different regional and thematic curiosities related to community relations, social ecology, indigeneity, religion, and so on, I recognize that my very understanding of these concepts is bound to change. Secondary to teaching you how to exist within the world rather than apart from it, I think this is a significant aspect of the Bonderman Fellowship which I will doubtlessly benefit from.
Jackson School: Focus of your research as a Middle East Studies graduate student?
S. A.-R.: As an aspiring scholar attempting to write in solidarity with the Syrian Revolution, my main interests lie in the intersections of opposition and revolutionary movements, assessing post-war social needs, and attempting to help reduce the more arbitrary borders which have been drawn between Syria Studies and other bodies of literature. In writing my M.A. thesis this manifested in a comparative analysis of the Damascus Spring and Syrian Revolution through the political process model of social movement theory. As for my thesis, I was quite pleased with my work, but recognize opportunities to renew, expand on, and correct my work with fresh eyes in the future. I hope to undertake a deeper re-evaluation to assess more of the potential flaws of social movement theory and chart a more thorough review of the development of the Syrian Opposition from 2000 to 2011.
Jackson School: What skills will you take with you from the Jackson School?
S. A.-R.: In terms of hard skills, I left the Jackson School with a strong foundation in Arabic – thanks, of course, to the incomparable Khalid Ahmed and Amina Moujtahid, both Jackson School Middle East Center affiliate faculty, to whom I am ever grateful – plus an introductory knowledge of statistical computing and GIS and experience conducting research. Yet, I have also benefitted significantly from exposure to varied subjects and literatures as well as the opportunity to step into several research and teaching assistantship positions. Additionally, I would emphasize that my time in the Jackson School taught me to push my limits; not necessarily through feats of endurance, but also through expanding the limits of what I can do with the material available to me and where I know to look for more. At some level, you expect this to be the case, after all graduate study is in large part oriented toward teaching you how to learn and research. Yet, watching and feeling this process unfold is an incredibly rewarding and impactful experience.
Jackson School: What career are you interested in pursuing?
S. A.-R.: When I return from the Bonderman Fellowship I hope to find employment aiding refugee resettlement to the Seattle area. Despite the challenges and stresses associated with this work I am committed to service and see no better place to start than in my own backyard lending what resources I have available to empower some of the most vulnerable people in our community. In the longer term, though, as I gain different skills and connections, I hope to find an opportunity to contribute to the reconstruction and development process in Syria. With the lifting of Caesar Sanctions on areas of Northeast and Northwest Syria I hope this will become more feasible as new and existing organizations expand their roots and operations. I have also worked quite hard to try to keep the option of a Ph.D. available, but as a younger graduate student I strongly prefer to take time for other endeavors before considering additional academic commitments.
Jackson School: Advice to students interested in our master’s degree program?
S. A.-R.: I was consistently impressed by both the breadth and depth of my instructors’ knowledge particularly when considering the small size of my graduating class. As a result, I felt that my program was extremely intimate and that I benefitted significantly from that environment. I would highly encourage future students to take advantage of this opportunity to build strong and productive relationships with their colleagues and mentors. You gain a significant boon to your learning and development, and I wish I had been able to do it more frequently when writing my thesis.
I would also highly encourage students to take advantage of the Jackson School’s interdisciplinary flexibility; I was able to take several classes in geographic information systems and statistical computing (because I apparently didn’t think I had enough on my plate), but you can find fruitful overlap anywhere – art, population health, ecology, etc.!
Finally, what I wish someone had told me – though which I perhaps would have ignored – is that you shouldn’t lock yourself in the library or student lounge in search of perfection. Taking advantage of the unique opportunities available at UW doesn’t require endless cramming and you’ll come to realize that while your textbook may be there tomorrow, an engaging and instructive event or gathering won’t. And it is at these events, from a speaker’s short remarks, or through idle chit-chat with a friend over coffee that you may have some of your most important revelations.