Jon Cohen ’14 describes the path he took to his independent major in Middle Eastern studies as a happy accident.
When he arrived at Grinnell, Cohen knew he wanted to do something related to the social sciences and learn a new language. He took Arabic and tried out political science, history, economics, and religious studies courses, but didn’t feel satisfied with any of the subjects on their own. He wanted to do all of them, but in one region, so it made sense to do Middle Eastern studies.
One of the major components of an independent major is the senior thesis, which Cohen had been thinking about since he declared. Cohen was studying abroad in Egypt in fall 2012 when Israelis and Palestinians fired dozens of rockets between southern Israel and the Gaza Strip. He was surprised by both the amount of discussion among Egyptians about the attacks and the degree to which the Egyptian military mobilized, when the attack had nothing to do with Egypt. That observation led him to the topic of his thesis.
Cohen’s senior thesis examines how Egypt President Gamal Abdel Nasser used Palestine as a symbol to bridge the gap between Egyptian territorial nationalism and Arab nationalism. With the help of professors Mervat Youssef and Caleb Elfenbein, and Arabic language assistant Azza Chemkhi, Cohen translated portions of Nasser’s 1962 national charter. The charter, which had never before been translated into English, outlined the foundation of Arab nationalism and is a call for Arab unity.
Cohen is grateful to have the opportunity to devote eight credits to individual research. “You get to go and open up a new door” to encourage discussion, Cohen says.
After he graduates, Cohen plans to apply the knowledge he gained in his independent major and through his senior thesis at a think tank in Washington, D.C. Cohen has been interested in policy for some time, which would allow him to do private scholarship outside a university, bypassing grad school for now.