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From Princeton Orange to Army Green

Commitment to service and passion for international studies drive former PIIRS Undergraduate Fellow Kate Maffey.

By Leda Kopach

When Kate Maffey ’16 reached an impasse in the research she was conducting in Jordan for her senior thesis, “Women in the Jordanian Army,” she did what most college students do — she started Googling.

“I was waiting to hear back from my contacts and started searching online in both Arabic and English,” says Maffey, a former PIIRS undergraduate fellow who graduated last spring with a major in Near Eastern studies and a certificate in French. “I came across an article in ‘Petra News’ about a retired women’s military association, a perfect source for my thesis. I took a chance and called the newspaper to ask if the reporter would be willing to contact the president of the association who was quoted in the article. A few minutes later, I had a phone number.”

Shortly after that, she had an invitation to the woman’s home followed by hours of invaluable conversation giving Maffey the vital background information she needed for her paper.

“She was incredibly helpful and very interested in my research,” says Maffey, who is also a newly commissioned second lieutenant in the U.S. Army having attended Princeton on a ROTC scholarship. “We had a lot in common as women who are invested in the military, and because I speak Arabic, language wasn’t a barrier; she trusted me.”

Luck would have it that the woman’s husband also happened to work in one of the largest military hospitals in Jordan, outside of Amman, so he was able to cut through some of the red tape Maffey was experiencing in obtaining interviews with military officials.

“Meeting her was such a windfall,” she adds.

From a young age, Maffey set her sights far and wide. Raised in suburban Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and homeschooled until her high school years, she credits the flexibility of her education in allowing her to pursue her many interests such as the Middle East and foreign languages. In eighth grade she convinced her mother to let her take Arabic lessons, and while she says she didn’t retain much of the language — it wasn’t offered in high school so she took French — she was hooked and determined to return to it in college. But first she had to figure out how to pay for school.

“Joining the military was always on the table,” Maffey says. “My father had served for a few years and I have some cousins and uncles who have also served. I wanted to be in the military to help people. I see the military as a way to extend the influence of my skill set and affect more people than I could alone. I am glad that these two ideas aligned and grateful that it was an easy choice.”

As an undergraduate, Maffey took courses in Arabic and French nearly every semester, later adding Persian when a professor suggested she diversify her studies. Coursework was balanced with her many extracurricular activities and ROTC commitments. Active in Princeton’s Catholic Campus Ministry and Princeton Faith and Action, she also tutored in French and Arabic and served as a residential college adviser (RCA) in Whitman College her senior year. She took on leadership roles in her battalion, and was named its executive officer in her senior year. Because of her success in school and in ROTC, Maffey obtained her first choice of branch and was commissioned as a military intelligence officer, a position she hopes will benefit from her language skills.

Maffey was also able to travel extensively through ROTC and international programs such as the PIIRS Undergraduate Fellowship Program that funded all expenses related to her travel to Jordan for her senior thesis research, and other study abroad programs with the Office of International Programs.

The summer after her first year at Princeton she was chosen to participate in Project GO (Global Officer), a program for ROTC cadets from all branches that sends students abroad to learn critical languages such as Arabic, Hindi and Russian. She also taught English to French soldiers in Lille, France, while participating in the Cultural Understanding and Language Proficiency Program (CULP), another ROTC program that sends teams of cadets to other countries in partnership with foreign militaries and governments. During her sophomore year, Maffey returned to Jordan to spend a semester in an immersive language program in the northern town of Irbid.

“We took a ‘language pledge’ not to speak English for four months,” Maffey says. “My Arabic went from intermediate low to advanced high, a huge jump for just four months. We also had weekly interviews with local women about topics such as marriage, divorce, clothing, etc., to learn more about their culture. Their responses were so interesting to me, and I realized that women’s issues were something I wanted to further explore.”

After writing one of her junior papers on women in the Middle East — the other was related to women who fought during the Algerian War for independence — she decided to return to Jordan to conduct field research for her senior thesis.

“I needed to go back and stay longer,” Maffey says. “I’m grateful to PIIRS for funding it for me and for the support I was given throughout the year as I wrote my thesis. As a woman I’ve explored my own space in the military. I related to these women on so many levels.”

Maffey says her greatest takeaway from her research was how grateful, enthusiastic and proud the military women were about the work they did.

The same can be said of Maffey.

PHOTO: Ben Weldon