“How did you choose your major?” This is a question I am asked on a daily basis, as my choice of interests seems to puzzle all those around me. None can fathom why a quarter Mexican, Indian, Italian, and German student would Double Major in Middle Eastern Studies and Peace and Conflict Studies, minoring in Arabic. My peers query, “you are not Jewish of Muslim or Israeli or Arab, so why do you care?” To be honest, answering my skeptics has been one of the greatest challenges I have had to overcome in this field — a field where everyone is certain I do not belong.
The truth of the matter is, I cannot pinpoint where this love-affair with the Middle East began. It may have its origins in my Christian religious ties to the Holy Land, or the Sunday mornings watching Fareed Zakaria with my father, or my 11th grade research papers on Islamophobia and Palestinian refugees. Or it may have been a convergence of a number of factors over time, but it eventually resulted in the knowledge that I would one day be working towards peace and diplomacy in the region. However, this answer lacks the striking epiphany or life-changing story that would soothe my critics, so I have come to realize that the best way to quell disbelief is through action.
I knew that I wanted to reach fluency in Arabic, Hebrew, and Farsi, so I began Rosetta Stone and just completed my first two semesters of my Arabic minor. I developed a deeply convicted interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and founded and presided over the Olive Tree Initiative at Berkeley. In this step, my racial diversity and ambiguity became an asset rather than an obstacle, as I was seen as an unbiased, unaffiliated leader capable of working with the Arab and Jewish communities on campus. Thus, I garnered the legitimacy and authority to unite students of all creeds and backgrounds, and this summer, I will be leading an interfaith group of UC students to the Middle East. On this three-week diplomatic and educational program to Israel and the West Bank, I will have the opportunity to work with the experts and top-political leaders in my field, learning and leading students with different perspectives but a shared passion. However, my journey will not end there.
I plan to use the opportunities afforded me to study Arabic intensively in Lebanon or Egypt next summer, intern at a peace organization in the region, and research for my Middle Eastern Studies thesis. Most importantly, however, graduating from UC Berkeley with my degree will open up doors for graduate school and my career path in Middle East foreign service. Perhaps I will be the next Susan Rice or Hilary Clinton, or the diplomat to craft the next Oslo Accords. Wherever the future leads, I know I will be pursuing my passion, making a difference, and proving to the world that my diversity is not a detriment, but a gift.
DiversityJobs.com’s scholarship program for diversity and minority students is proud to announce Shannon Thomas as one of the seven finalists for its August 2012 application deadline. Vote for her essay (Facebook ‘Like’ and other social media sharing options in left column), and/or leave comments of support to help us with the selection process.