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Creating an Arc of International Experiences

An Interview With PIIRS Director Stephen Kotkin

What are you most excited about as the new director of the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies?

I’m thrilled to have the honor of directing PIIRS, building on the work of my predecessors. The Institute has grown enormously since its founding in 2003. We select and support a fantastic group of undergraduate fellows across disciplines who are working on senior theses in international and regional studies. We do the same for an outstanding group of graduate student fellows who are completing their Ph.D. dissertations. PIIRS also serves as the main engine for graduate student language study and research abroad, awarding the vast bulk of funding on a merit basis.

Do all of the regional studies programs at Princeton fall under the PIIRS umbrella?

PIIRS houses the programs in African Studies; Contemporary European Politics and Society; Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies; South Asian Studies; as well as the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication. Other regional studies programs on campus include East Asian Studies, European Cultural Studies and Near Eastern Studies. Latin American Studies and Hellenic Studies are self-standing programs.

We are also planning to expand our regional investments. The newly created Paul and Marcia Wythes Center on Contemporary China is one key example. We’ll also have some exciting news soon on contemporary India.

Beyond PIIRS’ signature Global Seminars and its Undergraduate Fellowship program that supports senior thesis research, does PIIRS plan to offer any other international opportunities for undergraduates?

In addition to increasing the number of Global Seminars we currently offer, PIIRS is exploring ways to connect foreign experiences with courses on campus. Swahili is taught at Princeton through our Program in African Studies, and we encourage our students to continue the coursework in Tanzania with the Program in Dar es Salaam. We are also planning to take students who study Sanskrit to Kerala on India’s southern Malabar Coast to enhance their classroom learning.

How does PIIRS interact with other Princeton departments?

PIIRS aspires to find partners across the entire campus. We are sponsoring a fellow in the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism and the Humanities, who is teaching a course called “Interdisciplinary Design Studio.” We are interested in hearing ideas for new collaborations.

How is international and regional programming for students evolving?

Along with our international partners on campus, we are investigating ways to make our programming, research and teaching cohere even more. From the Bridge Year Program to internationally and regionally themed freshman seminars, Global Seminars, study abroad, travel for language study, senior thesis research abroad and international internships, we are looking to create an arc of integrated experiences for our students.

On a more somber note, I know that you are the Ph.D. adviser for Wang Xiyue. What is his status?

Wang Xiyue, a gifted Ph.D. student working on Eurasian history under my supervision, has been suffering immeasurably since being imprisoned in Iran in August 2016. The University continues to do everything we can to support Wang's family and facilitate his release so he can return to his wife and son and continue his studies. 

Stephen Kotkin is the John P. Birkelund ’52 Professor in History and International Affairs and the director of the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies. 

ILLUSTRATION: Carl Mill