Sam Harshbarger, a senior at Princeton University, has been awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to pursue graduate studies at the University of Oxford.
Harshbarger is one of 32 Americans to receive the renowned fellowships, which cover two to three years of graduate study at Oxford. In a statement, Ramona I. Doyle, American Secretary of the Rhodes Trust, said of this year’s Rhodes Scholars, “They inspire us already with their accomplishments, but even more by their values-based leadership and selfless ambitions to improve their communities and the world.”
Over 70 different countries compete for Rhodes Scholarships. Individual countries choose their receivers according to their own schedules.
Harshbarger, of Cranbury, New Jersey, is majoring in history and minoring in history and diplomacy, Near Eastern studies, and Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies. He plans to pursue an MPhil in history at Oxford.In October, he will begin his studies there.
He is a member of the Behrman Undergraduate Society of Fellows, an organization of juniors and seniors interested in humanistic research. He is also a Center for International Security Studies student fellow and an undergraduate fellow of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.
Harshbarger is fluent in Spanish and Turkish, as well as Azerbaijani and Russian. He claimed his senior thesis, tentatively titled “Between Cold War and Decolonization: Turkey and Post-Colonial Afro-Asia, 1951-1960,” examines Turkey’s participation in the Bandung Conference in 1955 and its interaction with anti-colonial nationalists in North Africa. He is a fellow of the Lawrence Stone and Shelby Cullom Davis Thesis Prize.
“Sam is a once-in-a-generation academic talent,” said Natasha Wheatley, assistant professor of history, who met Harshbarger when he took her “History of International Order” course in spring 2021. “His exceptional academic work is fueled by a boundless curiosity, an expansive humanist ethos and deep moral engagement in the contemporary world.”
Wheatley advised Harshbarger’s thesis this summer until she went on maternity leave this fall. His current mentor is Michael Laffan, the Paula Chow Professor of International and Regional Studies and history professor.
“Reading Sam’s work, one often forgets that one is reading a student — let alone an undergraduate student,” Wheatley said. “Indeed, Sam has been doing graduate level work for quite some time. His multilingualism corresponds to a profoundly cosmopolitan outlook: to a highly unusual degree, Sam can truly see the world from many different perspectives.”
Harshbarger became interested in Turkey while participating in exchange programs in Russia in high school because of its proximity to the former Soviet Union across the Black Sea and the Middle East to the south. Prior to beginning at Princeton, he spent a gap year as a policy fellow with the Washington, D.C.-based Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF), working from Turkey on SETF’s cross-border humanitarian aid to towns in northwestern Syria.
Due to the COVID-19 epidemic, classes at Princeton were still out of reach for Harshbarger when he began his studies there in the fall of 2020. He purchased a one-way ticket back to Istanbul, unsure of when he would return to Princeton. His days began at 8 a.m. with a three-hour group Turkish language session, followed by afternoons spent continuing his job with SETF as director of Congressional strategy — and, due to the time difference, evening Princeton classes and coursework into the early hours of the morning.
His interest in how geopolitics, history, and journalism intersected, he wrote in his personal statement for his Rhodes application, as the Azerbaijani Army marched into the Armenian-held region of Nagorno-Karabakh on Sept. 27, that fall. “I resolved then to study history with an eye towards unraveling the nationalism and historical memory that lay behind this violence,” he writes in his book.
Harshbarger took a survey course on the history and cultures of the Caucasus from Istanbul that fall, taught by Michael Reynolds, associate professor of Near Eastern Studies and co-director of the Program in the History and Practice of Diplomacy, who was also teaching remotely from Istanbul.
“Although just a first-year student, Sam tackled the assignments like a graduate student, reading with the intent not just of assimilating unfamiliar facts but to uncover the logics shaping the authors’ narratives,” said Reynolds, who was Harshbarger’s adviser on his junior paper.
“Sam combines a first-rank intellect with a true zeal for exploring and understanding the societies and cultures of greater Eurasia and the Middle East,” Reynolds said. “He is a quiet but driven, energetic, independent and entrepreneurial young man who will leave a mark on the world.”
Harshbarger spent the spring semester of his first year in Turkey. He began to consider a career in journalism and think tank research while producing an audio documentary on the politics of Syrian refugees in Turkey for a course in the Humanities Council’s Program in Journalism taught by NPR’s then-Athens correspondent Joanna Kakissis.
Throughout his stay at Princeton, Harshbarger used Istanbul as his home base for research in the region, returning every summer and winter break. As an international policy associate with Princeton’s Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination, he has implemented his views from these experiences on campus.
In September 2022, he was awarded the Shapiro Prize for Academic Excellence. He is a student at Forbes College.
Outside of academia, he works as a researcher on Turkish foreign policy at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a think tank in Philadelphia. He has also worked as an international affairs research analyst for Bechtel, an international construction and engineering corporation; as a research assistant for the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank; and for the Evergreen Strategy Group.
When Harshbarger learned of his Rhodes Scholarship, he was in New York City. After three years of digitally selecting American Rhodes Scholars, interviews with candidates took place in person this year.
Upon learning he had won, Harshbarger said: “I was in a state of disbelief. I called my family as soon as I got the chance.”
About going to Oxford, he said: “I’m so excited to meet my classmates and learn from world-class faculty, such as Professor Zbig Wojnowski, who focuses on the history of Ukraine, Russia and Central Asia.”
Harshbarger plans to return to Istanbul after his Rhodes studies to pursue a career in the transnational politics of conflict across Eurasia, either as a journalist or with a think tank.