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9/11's Ivory Towers

This year's graduating class began college the day after Sept. 11; the attacks have shaped seniors' lives and studies

By Jonathan P. Abel and Jessica E. Vascellaro, Crimson Staff Writerss

Jeffrey P. Clemens ’05 woke up about an hour after the planes hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 and turned on the TV. After taking in the destruction, he left his Matthews dorm room for a freshman seminar interview in Widener. He returned to watch Lower Manhattan turn into dust.

With the memory of the attacks still smoldering, Clemens and the rest of the Class of 9/11 started school the next day, as planned. Students shuffled between lectures and vigils, shopping classes in the wake of the tragedy.

“Everyone would like to say that their time in college was an interesting time in history,” says Eric R. Trager ’05, who studied Arabic and the Middle East at Harvard. “But having 9/11 occur a day before classes started put us in the center of the academic universe at a real pivotal moment in history.”

In the next four years, students would revisit that day. Sept. 11 changed the tenor of life at military academies and left students in New York City and Washington, D.C. feeling more vulnerable. But at Harvard, the effects have been more subtle and cerebral.

The attacks spawned new courses and increased enrollments in religion and Arabic classes at Harvard. Sept. 11 has manifested itself in the academic interests and career decisions of many members of this year’s graduating class. For others in the Class of 9/11, it was just a day that they will never forget.


Social studies concentrator Rebecca Leventhal ’05 chose to write her thesis on social and political discrimination against Muslim and Hindu small business owners in Brooklyn and Queens after Sept. 11.

“I have always been interested in political and economic development in general, but became especially so with the impact of 9/11,” she says. “I was interested in how 9/11 policies treated Muslims as scapegoats.”

Leventhal’s thesis grew out of the tragedy, yet it was not until she reviewed past coursework that she realized the true impact of Sept. 11 on her studies.

To prepare for her oral examination, Leventhal leafed through old papers and skimmed course notes. Her reflection on the impact of Sept. 11, she says, was the one theme that stood out. “I realized that Sept. 11 and the response to it has framed my entire academic career.”

Leventhal is one of many across a variety of fields who have pursued thesis topics relating to Sept. 11.

Clemens says he came across the idea for his economics thesis in a national security seminar inspired by Sept. 11 and taught by Baker Professor of Economics Martin S. Feldstein. Clemens learned that 40 percent of Afghanistan’s Gross Domestic Product comes from opium production, a figure that prompted his own research into the issue.

Using data collected by the United Nations since the early 1990s, Clemens estimated the efficacy of drug control policies like crop eradication and crop replacement. This May, he won a Hoopes prize for his thesis on price fluctuations in opium from Afghanistan.

The impact of the attacks has gone beyond senior theses. Academic tastes have shifted across the College.

In their sophomore years, 35 members of the Class of 2005 became religion concentrators, more than twice the number of concentrators in the classes before and after it. Some have attributed the spike to Sept. 11, and how it has heightened awareness of tensions between the Muslim and Christian worlds.

Matthew A.B. Siegler ’05 says Sept. 11 was the deciding factor behind his desire to concentrate in religion.

“9/11 affected my decision in a major way,” he says. “The new national consciousness about religion as motivation for the attacks was a major part of it for me.”

Like the committee on religion, the department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization (NELC) grew more popular in the wake of the attacks. NELC has nine concentrators in the Class of 2005. This is a notable increase from past years for a concentration that usually attracts only joint-concentrators and graduate students, according to William E. Granara, professor of the practice of Arabic on the Gordon Gray Endowment.

Three of these seniors, he says, have taken four years of Arabic, an unprecedented number given that the concentration, which includes Arabic, Islamic, Jewish, Turkish, and Persian studies, only requires two years of a primary language.

The growth in NELC enrollment can be attributed to the popularity of Arabic classes that swelled in the months and years after Sept. 11. A year after the attacks, enrollment in introductory Arabic nearly doubled. According to the Registrar, 74 students enrolled in Arabic A, an introductory language course, in the fall of 2002, while 36 and 41 had enrolled respectively in the previous two years. Since then, enrollment numbers have remained high.

Thomas I.D. Odell ’04-’05 took his first Arabic class on Sept. 12, 2001 and he calls the attacks “quite a backdrop” for the beginning of his studies. The summer before the attacks, Odell decided to concentrate in NELC instead of American history, a decision he says his friends did not understand.

“Before 9/11...people would say ‘why do you want to do that?’” he says. “After Sept. 11 everyone would say ‘Oh that’s so relevant.’ They say relevant like it’s suddenly fascinating.”

This reception bothered Odell at first because his preexisting interest was not strictly military or political. But he quickly became interested in current events, he says, and it all did begin to feel relevant.

Odell doesn’t know where his study of Arabic will lead him, though journalism is one career path he is considering.


Kyle E. Scherer ’05, a Lenapi Native American, says that Sept. 11 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have made him think harder about his future career and patriotism.

“The events of Sept. 11 almost made me question the path that I was going on,” says Scherer, who joined the army reserves and will work in a Cambridge-based military intelligence unit after graduation.

Scherer, a special concentrator in “American Public Policy and American Indian Politics,” says he studied colonialism from the perspective of the colonized.

“I started off really enthusiastically sophomore year and really believing in the military and these goals—the remaking of the Middle East—and now I question what I’m going into. Is the organization that I’m going to be serving inherently different from [the colonialism] I’m studying in Hawaii and South Africa?” he says.

Trager, who concentrated in government, says that Sept. 11 pushed him to study Arabic and the Middle East but also to seek a job at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he will be a research assistant next year.

While some graduates will delve into Middle East research, some of their ROTC classmates will jump right into the Middle East.

Elliott N. Neal ’05, an army Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) cadet, will grab his diploma on June 9 and then drive to Fort Benning, Ga. for training two days later.

He has been assigned to the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade in Italy, where he will serve as a lieutenant if he passes his training this summer. Neal expects to be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan—a contingency that has “horrified” his mother.

“I definitely would have joined even if we didn’t have a war going on,” Neal says. “But it would have a much different feel if I didn’t think­—if I knew I wouldn’t be overseas having people shooting at me.”

Growing up in small-town Missouri, Neal thought throughout high school that he’d go to the Naval Academy, but senior year he decided to apply to Harvard and was surprised when he got in. He wanted to serve and ROTC was a good way to pay the College’s steep tuition.

When he got to Cambridge as a freshman, he signed up for the Army, only to be stunned a few days later by the Sept. 11 attacks.

“I thought of it almost like Pearl Harbor,” says Neal, whose mentor at church was a proud World War II veteran. “I remember walking around Harvard Square that afternoon and asking what do I do now? Do I drop out of college and join the military?”

Sept. 11 deepened Neal’s commitment to the military. But other ROTC seniors say their decision to serve was not influenced by the terrorist attacks.

“I joined ROTC before 11 Sep 2001,” Sean D. Wilson ’05 writes in an e-mail. “It was my pursue a military career prior to that date. The attacks of 11 Sep 2001 have had nothing to do with my decision to remain in the program.”

But for David W. Huebner ’05, who is considering taking a job in government, Sept. 11 did play an important role in weighing career options.

An American citizen who moved to France as an infant, Huebner says that he always saw himself as occupying a “middle ground” between European and American international affairs. Sept. 11 made that impossible.

Huebner says he was struck by the widening cultural divide exposed as the United States purported to defend its interests through military invasions while most of Europe watched idly. His social studies thesis examined the rise of a new political discourse in America, one which heightened binary representations of the world and religious themes.

While Huebner drew from examples other than Sept. 11, he says that his decision to examine American and European relations was motivated by the terrorist attacks. Sept. 11, Huebner says, “spearheaded my whole thesis.”

Senior theses provided a way for Huebner and others to deal with intellectual angst of Sept. 11, but for Neal, who will be serving abroad, the decision not to write one was not too difficult.

“The Iraqis probably won’t care if I wrote a thesis or not,” he said. “So I decided just to spend some time with my friends.”

—Staff writer Jonathan P. Abel can be reached at

—Staff writer Jessica E. Vascellaro can be reached at

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