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The final post this week from our continuing Student Stories writers comes from Akshobh.

Professor Sulmaan Khan is the eternal polymath – he knows everything about everything.  Hyperbole aside, all of Professor Khan’s students agree that he is the ultimate historian with domain knowledge second to none.

Professor Khan’s Historian’s Art class outside Ginn Library. I am in the front row in a brown jacket, not quite acclimatized to the weather.

I took Professor Khan’s Historian’s Art class this spring.  The class is as esoteric as the name sounds.  It’s certainly a class for history connoisseurs, however with a twist.  The key element of the class lies in being able to transport yourself into the shoes of decision makers at various times in history, forgetting what you know and trying to rationalize why they did what they did at that point in time.  The class ensures you don’t fall into the hindsight fallacy and that you understand the extenuating circumstances that existed then, and that as a result, shaped key world events.

One of Professor Khan’s interesting traits is to be able to conduct his classes outside.  Naturally, a New England winter precludes this happening too often.  But one fine March day, we found ourselves seated on the grassy lawn.  Professor Khan reassured us that it was spring and ergo when the weather is pleasant, it’s time to make full use of it.

“I still see snow, professor,” remarked one of my classmates, pointing to a muddy block of ice.  “Well, it’s New England, so you’re always going to see snow,” remarked Professor Khan.  “But, snow should not be the key factor in ascertaining whether it’s spring time or not; it’s actually robins,” he explained.

It was almost as if Professor Khan then put on his ornithology hat and stated, “People presume that the sighting of a robin is the first sign of spring in the U.S. and that robins are not seen in winter.  This is a myth.”  He stated confidently, “Robins are seen in winter; however, they’re seen in the trees, since it is too cold for them to be on the ground to forage.  In spring, they are seen scurrying away on the ground.”  And sure enough, we turned to find two robins on the ground, in their search for worms while we searched for answers to some of history’s biggest questions.

The spring semester is a peculiar time at Fletcher.  Unlike the fall semester, you don’t come onto campus with trees in bloom and the sun shining brightly, and there are certainly no robins hopping on the ground.  Instead, you walk in after a relatively cold winter break, with more cold weather ahead.  Spring doesn’t arrive till late March or early April, which is the business end of the semester.

Except for Januarians, who are just starting their studies, the spring semester is the antithesis of the fall semester, and that’s not even referring to weather.  For second years, it’s the last hurrah of their Fletcher sojourn and that means capstone season, along with fulfilling last course requirements and the job hunt.  For first years, you’ve dipped your toe in the Fletcher well in the fall, and the second semester is now balancing your classes with the internship hunt.

While a Fletcher curriculum can be both exhaustive and (given the workload) exhausting, the internship hunt is almost a fifth course.  Or maybe like one or two whole courses, where you need to keep putting in the research and tidying up your résumé, writing succinctly yet waxing lyrical about your experiences in cover letters.  The internship search has no fixed timeline and is a continuous work in progress.  It concludes only when the dotted line has been signed.

My unsolicited advice is that, as hackneyed as it may sound, it is important to start early; perhaps start in the winter break if you have to.  I got so caught up in my classes, assignments, and club activities that I didn’t start hunting till March.  Fortunately, after an exciting spring break visit to Israel & Palestine, my internship found me.

I will be working with the South Asia center at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC, focusing on U.S. foreign policy and business engagement with the region.

As I wrap up my first year, I’m looking forward to an exciting summer.

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In the last weeks of the semester, our Student Stories bloggers started wrapping up their posts for the year.  Akshobh traveled to Israel and Palestine with a group of students over the March Spring Break, and he sent me this report.  (Further spring semester posts will be appearing throughout the rest of May and June.)

When it comes to travel, let me facetiously say that I can classify people in two distinct categories.  There are those who travel and then there are those who stay at home, watching the travel channel.

I was definitely in the former bucket.  Since 2010, I had made myself a promise — every year I would visit one place that I hadn’t seen before.  And sure enough, my itchy feet and desire to see the world ensured that promise stayed on course.

Taking a hiatus from the working world and investing your time and money in graduate school creates a lot of challenges, one of them being limited ability to pamper yourself with a fancy holiday.  Fortunately, one of the many alluring aspects of coming to Fletcher are student-led treks.  This past spring break, one had an eclectic mix to choose from: traveling to Russia (on an official Fletcher trip), or on student-led treks to Mexico, or to the Middle East, to visit Israel and Palestine.

The Israel and Palestine trek is the longest running student-led trek at Fletcher, and visiting these regions epitomized why I came to Fletcher in the first place — to get an in-depth understanding of the protracted saga and try and comprehend the viable diplomatic solutions that may exist.  But equally important, it was a treat for history aficionados to tour sites of mythological and archaeological importance.  Visiting Israel was definitely an item to check off the bucket list and, with all needed caveats regarding visas and immigration queries, we found ourselves driving to the holy city of Jerusalem from Tel Aviv airport.  Our tour leaders featured two second-year and two first-year students, a Fletcher PhD graduate now working with the Israeli Government, and our British tour guide, Samuel, who has spent the last seven years in Israel and had hosted three previous Fletcher groups.

Our tour of Israel began in the old city of Jerusalem, a revered place with some of the holiest sites for the three Abrahamic religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism.  Jerusalem has been one of history’s greatest players and it attracts devotees and tourists alike.

In addition to the sacred sites, there are also the souks (traditional Arabic market places) adorned with handicrafts and souvenirs and selling spices that will satiate both your palate and your tourism appetite.

A visit to the holy city would have been incomplete without going to Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Remembrance Center) and hearing first-hand from a Holocaust survivor gave us goosebumps.

You wouldn’t get a fair perspective on relations between Israel and Palestine if you visited only Israel and heard only the Israeli perspective.  On the second day of our visit, we crossed East Jerusalem (the predominantly Arab part of the city) to Ramallah in the Palestinian territories.

Amal Jadou, F09, speaking to us about Israel-Palestine issues.

Our first stop was the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where we met Amal Jadou, who is currently the Assistant Minister on European Affairs for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

To add to her impressive credentials and role, she is also a 2009 Fletcher PhD graduate.  After briefing us on geopolitical affairs pertaining to Israel and Palestine, she fondly reminisced about her Fletcher classmates and her time at Blakeley Hall, and even asked us to pass on her regards to Professor Babbitt and Professor Schultz.

Geopolitics of the region were an important part of our visit to Palestine, but we were especially impressed later in the day when we met social entrepreneurs who, despite the hardships in the region, had created dynamic startups leveraging technology and employing local youth.  Their goal was to add a new chapter to the Palestine story.

During our weeklong excursion, we traversed the Israeli countryside so much that we saw the borders with three of Israel’s four neighbors, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon (but not Egypt).  My personal favorite was being on the banks of the Jordan river, so nonchalantly separating Israel and Jordan.

On the banks of the Jordan River. The people behind me in Jordan, while I remain on the Israeli side of the border.

Our trek was far from being only about serious discourse on Middle Eastern issues.  While we heard from a range of speakers — from the Israeli Defense Forces and Israeli parliamentarians to Palestinian entrepreneurs and government officials to humanitarian aid workers — our trip included the quintessential tourist experience as well.

From floating in the saline waters of the Dead Sea, to driving all-terrain vehicles in the Golan Heights, having a desert party on the Israel-Jordan border, gorging on the various renditions of Israeli hummus, savoring shakshuka, sipping from one of Israel’s finest vineyards, experiencing Tel Aviv nightlife, or just dancing to Israeli music on the bus while driving through the countryside, it’s fair to say that nearly fifty of us “broke bread” (sometimes literally, with hummus) in the finest fashion.

Apart from satiating my appetite with gastronomic delights, this trip also greatly satisfied my intellectual curiosity to travel to a region I had read so much about but never had the chance to experience.

A beautiful windy day with the Tel Aviv skyline behind me.

Even Fletcher’s finest courses on the Middle East couldn’t provide the same holistic perspective without a visit to the region.  As a former journalist, I can say that sometimes the political headlines and op-eds don’t tell you the complete story.  It’s having conversations with the people, experiencing the history, witnessing the culture, and gorging on the smorgasbord of Middle Eastern delicacies that paints a much clearer picture.

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We’re going to close out the fall semester updates with Akshobh’s report on his semester and how it met his expectations.

Outside Blakeley Hall

I had been forewarned that nothing can truly prepare you for a New England Winter.  In my previous post, I wrote about how, after seven years of living on the equator, the only weather I had experienced oscillated between rain or no rain.  In Singapore, where I lived for seven years, it was summer throughout the year.  December 17th or June 6th made no difference — t-shirts and shorts were the norm.  The closest I had come to see snow was in an indoor mall in Dubai.  (My New Englander friends have told me that doesn’t count.)

On December 9th, on a snooze-filled Saturday morning, I woke up to see something miraculous outside Blakeley Hall — the winter’s first snow.  Yet I had half expected a tepid response to something seasonally expected from many who grew up around snow.

Much to my surprise, even friends who grew up around snow showed the same alacrity to be outside as I did.  The first day of snow is, indeed, quite mesmerizing.  My fellow blogger, Kaitlyn, a native New Englander, describes winter as her favorite season.  (It seems like it will take more than three decades of snowy winters to change her mind.)

In front of Blakeley Hall with fellow bloggers Prianka (right) and Kaitlyn (far right).

There are many perks to living in Blakeley Hall.  The stellar ones are the value for money in terms of rent and the bonhomie you forge among the seventy-odd residents – if Fletcher is about community, Blakeley is a microcosm.  But most of all, for folks like me who are used to tropical habitat, the commute from Blakeley to Fletcher is only seventy steps away.  The short commute is the biggest asset in Boston’s blistering blizzards.

Sitting away from the snowfall in Atlanta, Georgia during the winter break gave me a good chance to reflect on a first semester that whizzed by.  Going back to the classroom after years in the newsroom was always going to be hard.  But what kind of a program am I in and what sort of people does Fletcher attract and what sort of careers result?

The MALD is no doubt esoteric; after all, it is truly one of a kind.  And safe to say that there is no cookie-cutter MALD candidate, since unlike other degrees (say an MBA, JD or an MD), a MALD is truly malleable, and can be shaped to work for one’s self in a manner like no other.

At Fletcher, pick any world issue or geographic region, and I guarantee you will find either a professor who is expert on the subject, or a student who is studying that particular issue, or someone who is from the region or has worked there: from understanding food security in Malawi, to exploring how blockchain can be used to solve problems in healthcare, to considering the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar, to the security threats arising out of asymmetric warfare in the South Asia.  Perhaps the words Law & Diplomacy in the acronym MALD, don’t quite capture the intellectual depth and expertise the school has to offer.  It’s not surprising when you and your roommate, both in the MALD program, could discover that in the whole two years — four full semesters — you’ve never been in the same class.

My focus at Fletcher is to be at the nexus of geo-politics and geo-economics, for I feel foreign policy and business are no longer two disparate entities but the common portion of a Venn diagram.  Governments and businesses can no longer ignore each other, for global political events affect economic outcomes.

In short, my goal at Fletcher is to understand a country’s tale (history & foreign policy) and how companies scale (business).

Hence my first semester saw me take a mix of classes, including National Security Decision Making: Theory and Practice, traditionally for the security junkies and foreign policy wonks, as well as Starting New Ventures (where I was one of only three first-year students, in a predominantly second-year MIB class) dealing with cases about entrepreneurs and the challenges they face.  There are few places and few programs that offer such an eclectic mix.

Interviewing Harvard academic Joseph Nye for the Fletcher Security Review.

My interests drew me to partake in events such as Simulex, where I was the Director of National Intelligence for the U.S in a Fletcher-wide simulation also featuring China, North Korea, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan handling an East Asia Crisis.  I interviewed leading Harvard academic Joseph Nye on soft power for the Fletcher Security Review, had lunch with Lord Michael Dobbs, discussing political leaders, and attended guest lectures from two four-star generals.

Meanwhile my interest in economic affairs led me to organize and moderate a panel on President Trump’s trade policies titled “Trump: Trade & Tirade.”  In addition, two other Fletcher students and I were selected to attend the World Bank Youth Summit in Washington, DC, which focused on Technology and Innovation for Impact.

With (right) Christina Saas, F09 (MALD), Co-Founder of Andela and TingTing Yang, F14 (MIB), a World Bank employee.

Fletcher’s global influence was evinced when at the World Bank in DC.  Every time we unfurled the Fletcher flag, we found an alumnus at the bank who came up to us and said, “Hey, I went to Fletcher, too.”  It’s almost as if the Fletcher flag was our business card.

Looking back, the decision to take the plunge and return to school was never easy.  I had friends and family who were divided on the issue of my giving up a stable income and taking a hiatus from the working world.  The camps were split, so much so that I facetiously say that it became a Brexit decision: there was a “Stay Camp” (don’t quit your job and move halfway around the world) and a “Go Camp” (take the plunge, it’ll be worth it).

An investment banker friend asked me how I could justify paying tuition and foregoing two years of income.  To which I replied that when I walk into the Hall of Flags and see all the illustrious alumni names on the wall of this hallowed institution, I am reminded that I am going to school with peers who will rise similarly to the highest echelons of government, become future diplomats, and serve their country’s military.  And I will have sat right beside them while their intellectual moorings took hold.

So how can I put a dollar value on that experience?

With a Fletcher classmate, outside the White House.

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The final new Student Stories introduction comes from Akshobh, who started the MALD program in September after a journalism career.  Akshobh is a regular presence in the Admissions Office, conducting interviews for us each Friday.

In front of the Singapore skyline in my last week in the city state.

Leaving Singapore was excruciatingly hard!

I grew up in Bombay (now Mumbai), India and moved to Singapore fresh out of journalism school, knowing few people and precious little about the city state.

It then became home for seven amazing years, in two different journalism jobs, first with ESPN STAR Sports, and then as a business news reporter and producer with Channel NewsAsia (part of MediaCorp) the largest PAN-Asian English news broadcast channel in the region.

I often say that my career in journalism was a serendipitous affair.

The final 18 selected from India – I am third from the right in the second row.

I inadvertently stumbled into the auditions of ESPN STAR’s nationwide hunt for a presenter — through a show called Dream Job.  The winner of the program would be offered a one-year contract as a sports presenter.  I was short-listed in the final 18 among 100,000 applicants.  As one of the final 18, I would go through several televised rounds of high-level sports quizzes and debates, conduct mock interviews, and host mock sports bulletins in front of an elite panel of judges.  Each episode was broadcast on the network’s leading channel and beamed right into the homes of people across India.

Through the show, I realized I wanted to get into broadcast journalism and applied to journalism school.  One of the internships I pursued was with the same host network — my boss happened to be one of the judges who had seen me on the show and he offered me an internship in Singapore.  On completing a two-month internship, I was offered a full-time job for after my final semester in journalism school.

Interviewing Feon Ang, Vice President of LinkedIn, Singapore.

After a few years with a sports broadcast network, I segued to working for Channel NewsAsia as a business news reporter and producer.

I covered news pertaining to Singapore’s economy, and interviewed economists, entrepreneurs, business leaders, and policy makers across a gamut of industries.  I soon realized that I was fortunate to meet, and get these fantastic perspectives, from industry leaders; however I myself would also need to develop these skills and build on domain expertise.  The most conventional option was to look at business school after a few years of working, but I was more passionate about geopolitics, foreign policy, and diplomacy.

As a business reporter in Singapore, I saw the intersection between geopolitics and macroeconomic events.  Decisions made by governments affected economies and the private sector.  Hence I realized that a program at Fletcher would provide the best of both worlds.  Like all prospective students, I cast my net wide, applying to a host of business and international affairs school.  But the acceptance from Fletcher made all the difference.  Not only was Fletcher the first to accept me, but the outreach from the Admissions Office, current students, and alumni was so welcoming and hospitable.  My visit to campus as an admit sealed the deal.  I understood just why Fletcher epitomizes community.

Me on the left, interviewing a tour guide in the city of Mumbai, India.

This was back in 2016, however a sudden family emergency — the prospect of applying for my permanent residence in Singapore — weighed down on my decision to start in fall of 2016.  The only viable option was to request an unlikely deferral.  And to my surprise back then, the Admissions Office understood my predicament and ensured that I was able to defer my admission to 2017.

Staying on for another year in Singapore provided by far my most fulfilling professional year.  I moved to a new team at work, where I got to do longer and more in-depth business stories and travel to India to report on a country special episode.

At TEDx NTU in Singapore in October 2016.

In addition to my work, I was invited last year to give a TEDx talk at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore on journalism and was fortunate to moderate high-level panel discussions on media, technology, millennial employees, and smart cities across a range of events.

Then of course, the time came to be “shipping up to Boston.”  Having lived for seven years on the equator, the only weather change I was used to was between rain or no rain.  Moving from the tropical warmth of Southeast Asia to the blistering blizzards of New England was going to be a challenge.  But if anything, the warmth of the Fletcher community will be enough to fight off any New England cold.

For me, I refrain from referring to “grad school” since I feel it homogenizes Fletcher with all other grad schools.  Fletcher epitomizes diversity, like no other.  The diversity isn’t just in terms of nationalities represented (though, the Hall of Flags shows that).  The diversity at Fletcher is in terms of backgrounds, thought processes, and interests.

From human rights, to climate change, to gender studies, to energy, to diplomacy, to security studies, to understanding private sector merger & acquisition deals, there is truly something for everyone at Fletcher.  I feel positively overwhelmed with how much there is going on here.

Within my first few weeks, I was already co-chair of the ASEAN Club, taking up roles at Tech@Fletcher, a member of the Fletcher Political Risk Group, getting involved with the Murrow Center’s first televised bulletin, an Admissions ambassador, and interviewing experts for the Fletcher Security Review.

With Lord Michael Dobbs, Fletcher Alum and Author of House of Cards.

There is no normal day at Fletcher, although some days would include lunch and a political communications workshop with one of Fletcher’s finest alums — Lord Michael Dobbs, followed by a special guest lecture in class from a four-star general talking about national security decisions.

Fletcher’s biggest asset is truly its community.  From Fletcher’s Annual Faculty and Staff Waits On You Dinner, where faculty and staff don aprons and scurry along, carrying dishes to serve their students, to Fletcher Feasts, where students are randomly assigned to a host to break bread (sometimes literally) in the comfort of a home-cooked meal hosted by one of their own classmates, to when a professor opens up his house to students for a lazy Saturday afternoon picnic.  Or the creativity of students at Fletcher to come up with an open-mic night for the melodic voices, the amateur guitarists, and even for intimate poems and stories.

One of my best memories pertaining to Fletcher reflects the community, and came before I enrolled.  I met with Dr. Shashi Tharoor, F76, in Singapore, an Indian parliamentarian, former UN Diplomat and author — one of Fletcher’s best-known alumni.  As busy as he is, he simply said that when a Fletcher connection reaches out, he makes time for them.  That’s the meaning of community!

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