Returning Home

International Princetonians return to their home countries for research and service.

By Pooja Makhijani, Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies

Princeton University is home to over 2,000 international students and 1,200 international scholars, and their multi-country life experiences provide ample opportunities for invigorating and inspiring educational, cultural and personal exchange.

Three members of the University community — two undergraduate students and one postdoctoral research scholar — tell Princeton International their stories of returning home for research or service, and coming back again. Their experiences have shaped — and continue to influence — their academic and professional trajectories

Diana Sandoval Simán ’20: Existing Connections, New Perspectives

When Diana Sandoval Simán ’20 arrived at Princeton as a first-year student, she thought she might get some distance from home. Maybe she would study economics or philosophy, but certainly not Latin America and Latin American politics. Leaving her close-knit family in El Salvador was hard, but she was eager to launch her academic career in New Jersey. “[In a way], I was relieved to be leaving my country, because it’s a very dangerous place,” she says. “I was conflicted.”

But in a 300-level political theory course she took as a first-year student, in which students were asked to apply a theory that they had studied to a situation that they were interested in or familiar with, Sandoval Simán was prompted to reconsider her ambivalence ⁠— and her academic aspirations. In that class, she explicated extrajudicial executions in El Salvador, through the perspective of social contract theories, and realized that she was actually keenly interested in her region of origin.

Sandoval Simán, who is majoring in the Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs, has returned to El Salvador each summer, most recently to conduct research for her senior thesis, which focuses on gang violence and the evolution of security policy in El Salvador from 2003 to 2018. She partnered with a Princeton professor to do field research and received funding from the Program in Latin American Studies. She was grateful for the monies and the additional opportunity: her parents and siblings live in San Salvador, and Sandoval Simán has, over the course of her time at Princeton, tried to spend as much time with them as possible. “So, I ended up doing research for [the professor], and for my thesis,” Sandoval Simán says.

Sandoval Simán spent much of the summer of 2019 conducting semi-structured interviews with experts in government agencies, NGOs and think tanks; high-ranking public officials; advisors to the government; and scholars of public security, as well as archival research. Security policy in El Salvador is fiercely debated in the country, even at the dinner table among Sandoval Simán and her family and friends. “It was sometimes a challenge to take a step back,” she says. “Everyone has an opinion on violence and security in El Salvador. People think about security in very rigid terms, and not necessarily in an objective, academic way. It is something they deal with every day. I had to realize that people’s intuition about [violence in El Salvador] doesn’t always match the evidence or expert opinion.”

Prior to this, Sandoval Simán also interned at Fundación Salvadoreña para el Desarrollo Económico y Social (FUSADES), a Salvadorian think tank, where, under the tutelage of a mentor who was an expert on corruption, transparency and right to information, she learned how Salvadorian laws around right to information operate. This experience directly informed Sandoval Simán’s Junior Paper about right to information in El Salvador. She also received funding from the Program in Latin American Studies to conduct exploratory research during the summer after her sophomore year on the challenges to democratic consolidation and development in the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras).

Growing up in El Salvador, Sandoval Simán was constantly worried about her own safety and the safety of her family. “I could never play outside because it was dangerous. I felt frustrated with my country for forcing me to experience that,” she says. Now, however, she credits all her Princeton experiences with bringing her closer to her country. “It’s been a lot of personal discovery that I didn’t expect,” she adds.

“I’m now studying the very issue that has troubled me about my country,” she says. Sandoval Simán hopes to pursue graduate studies in either political sociology or comparative politics, with a focus on Latin America more broadly. “I can now see my country through a new set of eyes. And by striving to understand it through my research, I feel like I can do justice to the home that I know it has always been.”

Diana Sandoval Simán ’20 has returned to her home country of El Salvador each summer, most recently to conduct research for her senior thesis.

Dejan Kovač: From Postdoctoral Researcher to Presidential Candidate

By Kristen G. DeCaires, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs

Dejan Kovač, postdoctoral researcher at Princeton,has spent most of his career forging connections between theoretical problems and practical solutions in his home country of Croatia. Kovač was forced out of Slavonia and separated from his parents at an early age; he became a refugee in Zagreb. “I spent five years of my childhood in a shelter hiding from bombing and artillery attacks. Literally every day was a life or death situation for me or my family,” Kovač says. “If you would have told me 25 years ago that one day I would be at Princeton University working with the greatest minds in my field, I would say: ‘Hand me whatever you’re drinking.’”

Kovač’s early life experiences shaped his motivation to work in economics. Following his doctoral studies at CERGE-EI, a joint workplace of Charles University and the Economics Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences, he arrived at Princeton University in 2015 as a visiting student research collaborator at the Industrial Relations Section. After securing a coveted slot as a postdoctoral research associate within Princeton’s Empirical Studies of Conflict Project (ESOC), Kovač’s career as an economist shifted into one that concentrated on projects around the economics of conflict, particularly in Croatia.

One of his more notable projects estimated the human capital cost of war orphans and the effects of living in a single-parent household after war. The project was supported by the Ministry of Veterans and Ministry of Education in Croatia. His most recent initiative investigates the use of artificial intelligence to help students in Croatia select and apply for college.

For now, Kovač’s research is on hold, as he has returned home for a unique reason — to run for president. Studying the effects of conflict in Croatia has reinforced his sense of civic responsibility and the importance of public service. “How can we expect change if we do not set an example with our own actions?” he says.

Moin Mir ’22: Encouraging Education and Ambition

Upon admittance into Princeton, Moin Mir ’22 had become somewhat of a celebrity in his native Kashmir. “My acceptance was all over the news,” he says. “I was one of the first students to be admitted into and receive financial aid from such a prestigious U.S. university. It was a big deal in Kashmir.”

Mir used his growing fame to establish Wath, an educational and mentorship organization with his peers, before his matriculation at Princeton. This past summer, with funding from the John C. Bogle ‘51 Fellows in Civic Service program, or Bogle Fellowship, Mir and his peers built out the organization to help put Kashmiri high school students in a better position to make decisions about their careers. The fellowship, administered by the Pace Center for Civic Engagement, supports student participation in service or civic engagement pursuits during the summer before sophomore year.

“Students from Kashmir rarely apply to U.S. universities,” he says. “Many don’t have the mentorship or guidance or opportunities to pursue that. I was fortunate enough to have good mentors who pushed me. When stories about me were all over the news, this sort of opportunity came into the realm of possibility for so many students. That’s what compelled me to found Wath.”

Prior to his move to New Jersey, Mir and his peers led one three-day workshop. In partnership with professionals in various fields, from journalism to engineering, the workshop prompted high school students to explore as many academic and career opportunities as sparked their interest. Under the guidance of the Pace Center, Mir built on these achievements and developed a series of activities for select high school students, from standardized test workshops to mini-internships, to implement over the summer.

However, his service project didn’t go exactly as planned, given the political events in Kashmir this summer. For Mir, this meant a total communication blackout, shutting down cable, cellphones and the internet, which hampered Wath’s plans to launch its programming. A huge piece of Mir’s outreach was centered on an intense social media campaign. Undeterred, Mir flew to New Delhi, the capital of India, in late August, and downloaded testing and application resources and returned to Srinagar. An educational institute that Mir attended in addition to high school helped to distribute these materials by word-of-mouth, and Mir was able to conduct one Wath workshop, focused on test prep and essay writing.

Mir, who is planning on earning a degree in computer science, has “definite” plans for Wath’s future: “Contingent on the situation in Kashmir, we will continue everything we had planned, including a robust mentorship program. If we’re not doing this, nobody is doing this. And we have to do this.”

“I place a lot of value in getting a good education,” Mir adds. “I’m in a better place to help my community from this platform [at Princeton].”

Moin Mir ’22 counsels his peers as part of his educational organization, Wath, which helps put Kashmiri high school students in a better position to make decisions about their careers.