Professor Cyrus Partovi lecturing in front of a group. Illustration by Maya Winshell.

IA Majors Should Take the Road Less Traveled

On the first day of U.S. Foreign Policy this semester, a certain former Iranian diplomat addressed the class.

“Are there any upperclassmen in here?” he asked.

My hand shot up in the air. I expected it to be accompanied by at least a handful of others. Although as all heads turned towards me, I realized my worst fear had come into fruition: I was the only junior in a first-year International Affairs (IA) class.

“What’s your major?” he asked me next.

“International Affairs,” I responded sheepishly.

“Wow,” he said. “You must have really been avoiding me.”

I nodded. I had been caught. There was no sense in lying or making excuses. The truth is, I had been avoiding the class; I had pushed it aside for far too many semesters and now was facing the consequences. The question is, was it worth it? We need to backtrack a bit to find out.

I came to Lewis & Clark a starry-eyed first-year already set on being an IA major, with dreams of working as an international journalist or a foreign consultant for the U.N. Little did I know that I had committed four years of my life to being in a world where intellectual capital is measured by how many times you can mention the secession of East Timor, the violations of sovereignty in Crimea or something about the South China Sea. Buzz words include: “hegemon,” “neocolonialism,” “vital national interest” — the list goes on.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, although it is definitely an adjustment for those who do not spend every waking moment glued to magazines like The Economist or Foreign Affairs. This being said, taking IA 100 my first semester at LC, I made this adjustment and quickly found myself enthralled in the world of endless debates over foreign aid and interventions, diplomacy and sanctions and balance of power systems.

When registration for spring semester came around, I watched as all my fellow first-year IA majors signed up for the next class in the prescripted track: U.S. Foreign Policy. Although taught from a U.S.-centric lense, the department has dubbed this class essential and typically advises taking it immediately after IA 100.

At the time, I had could not muster up an ounce of enthusiasm about foreign policy and instead signed up for a class that aligned more with my interests; yes, you guessed it: Human Rights. I mean, what first-year IA major doesn’t have any affinity for human rights? I figured there was no harm in pushing off U.S. Foreign Policy for one semester, or at least I thought.

When the fall of sophomore year rolled around, I was all set for foreign policy, books and all. However, my entire class schedule was put into complete disarray when I was presented with an opportunity to join the IA Symposium Steering Committee and realized it was the only year I could partake. The one problem? The meeting times were the exact same time as foreign policy all year. Since I was already committed to going abroad fall of my junior year, the next semester I could take the class was the following spring  — and that brings us up to date. I am about to embark on my senior year as an IA major (as a scary email from the registrar just informed me) and am taking a first-year IA course. But you know what? I do not regret a thing.

Firstly, I think there is value in not following the prescripted IA track. With few required IA classes and a wide range of interdisciplinary options, the major leaves ample room to “choose your own adventure,” to mix and match classes that best fit your interests. Taking human rights instead of foreign policy my first year allowed me to surround myself with upperclassmen; it gave me mentors and role models early on within the IA department.

Helping form the 2018 IA Symposium forced me to think conceptually about the foremost debates around the world today. It also helped me feel rooted within the department and apart of the IA community, which can often feel fragmented. I felt like something tangible was actually coming out of my studies and it reinvigorated me in my classes, a worthy tradeoff for postponing foreign policy.

Secondly, while foreign policy may be a thorn in many IA majors’ sides, I think it presents a valuable opportunity to put yourself in the shoes of the U.S. government. Whether these are shoes you eventually want to fill yourself or not, it is an important perspective to understand if you want to have any IA-related career.

I hate to admit it, but I am actually interested in U.S. foreign policy now. Three years at LC have turned me from a tree-hugging human rights-lover to a cold, hard cynic and, dare I say it, a realist. I now thrive on foreign policy podcasts and news briefings. While I do spend much of class scoffing and rolling my eyes, I must admit that foreign policy is challenging me to define, and defend, my opinions on critical world events. It turns out my fear of being the only upperclassman in a first-year IA class was not something to be feared after all.

This all being said, when that former Iranian diplomat refers to me in class as the “IA major who has been avoiding him for years,” I will continue to just nod in acceptance and when he mentions the U.S.’s 11 aircraft carriers for the hundredth time, I will continue to roll my eyes. I mean I would not want him to think I am enjoying the class or anything.

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