Journal Archive > 2002 > January

The growth of IR

International relations major still a powerful magnet for undergrads

After September 11, many Americans learned a much-ignored truth: Our fate is inexorably linked to that of people around the world.

Tufts students appear to have known this for a long time, if their interest in the university's International Relations program is any indicator. Since the program was established in 1977 with a few dozen students, it has grown to include almost 600 who are majoring in the field.

Christiane Zehl Romero says Tufts' international relations program is successful because it reaches beyond traditional boundaries. © Mark Morelli

"Tufts students are quite interested in the world," says Christiane Zehl Romero, professor of German and director of the IR program. "Even if they are American citizens, they have often grown up in a number of different countries, or they are the children of parents who have been raised in other countries."

Or, they are the products of American cities or suburbs who want to broaden their horizons.

"Before I came to Tufts, I was a little surfer boy in California," jokes IR major John-Paul Ghobrial, A02. But his classes "triggered something in my head, and I became passionate about learning about the world. It awakened the light in me."

The IR program "makes it a little easier to think out of the box and question the world and what's going on in the world," he said.

Beyond traditional boundaries
Ghobrial's outlook is what the program is all about. An interdisciplinary major that incorporates courses from all divisions of Arts & Sciences, Tufts' IR program has achieved international recognition. Our IR program "often ranks number one in country. It has been considered a top program," Romero said.

At many schools, IR is sub-discipline of political science, Romero said. The reason the Tufts program is so successful is because it reaches beyond those traditional boundaries. It provides students with the necessary grounding in international relations theory and U.S. foreign policy, but also requires solid grounding in economics and fluency in a foreign language. The program emphasizes subjects like culture, religion, art and history—"those aspects that are vital in terms of understanding another region," Romero said.

Romero began her term as program director this fall. A former chair of the Department of German, Russian and Asian Languages and Literatures, she served as acting IR chair in 1997-98 and was a member of the committee that helped launch IR under the direction of former university president Jean Mayer.

Among her goals for the program is "to really bolster opportunities and interest in student research."

"I'd very much like to highlight and make students aware not only of the research of Tufts faculty, but other research on international matters," Romero said. "I'd like to sponsor events where students can get an idea of what really are some of the major issues, the cutting-edge issues in international relations."

Another goal is to "create more of a sense of an IR community," Romero said. "Give the students the sense, even in a large major, that their own individual education is important; help them to take charge of their own education."

A magnet for students
The structure of IR offers lots of choices, but the students always have clear categories from which to pick, Romero said. "In an interdisciplinary major, you really have to work at pulling it all together," she said.

The core consists of "Introduction to International Relations," "U.S. Foreign Policy" and courses in theory, economics, history, language and culture. Students also pick from five so-called "thematic clusters" on topics such as foreign policy analysis or international economics or environmental affairs. Most IR students also study abroad at some point in their Tufts careers.

Romero advises students to make a commitment to the major by their sophomore year because of the extensive language and economics requirements. But many IR majors have made their decision before they even arrive on the Hill.

"Before I came to Tufts, I knew I'd major in IR. That's the reason I came to Tufts," said Sadaf Gulamali, J04. "I chose international relations as an area of study when I was still in high school," said Rana Abdul-Aziz, J03.

Both Gulamali and Abdul-Aziz, like many majors, have intensely personal reasons for choosing IR.

"My IR story goes back 10 years or so, when I went to visit Pakistan and Nairobi, Kenya, with my cousin," said Gulamali, an American-born student whose family comes from Pakistan.

"I remember seeing kids on the street with no shoes, asking for money. They were kids my age—I was about eight at the time—and they were coming up asking for one rupee, which is worth about nothing in terms of a dollar. I think that really stuck with me," she said.

That memory has compelled Gulamali to decide that one day she will return to Pakistan "to help give people there some of the opportunities that we have here in the States."

Abdul-Aziz was born in Iraq; her family came to the United States when she was nine, in the aftermath of the Gulf War. "I saw how there were many misunderstandings about the region and the events. The main one during those years was making a distinction between civilians and the government of Iraq and its leader," she said. "The importance and need for diplomacy was something I came to value."

International perspective
In the 2000-01 academic year, 34 percent of IR majors were international students. The varied perspectives of these students help support a level of awareness that may escape others, say some IR majors.

The reaction to the events of September 11 is one example. Many—both on and off campus—were astonished to learn of the extent of anti-Americanism in much of the world; to many in the IR program, this was nothing new.

"September 11 was a wake-up call for everyone, but I think IR majors kind of saw something like that coming," said Gulamali. "They saw that the whole world does not think so highly of the U.S., no matter what the U.S. thinks."

Or, if being an IR major didn't prepare students for the shock of September 11, "they may be having an easier time trying to understand it," Ghobrial said.