Joshua Asabor '16
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Class of 2016, History
Tell me about why you majored in History.
I was initially drawn to the Woodrow Wilson School because I was excited about the opportunity to explore my passion in history in a more applied way, but I quickly realized that the History Department was what I wanted to call my academic home. For me, it was more important that what I studied in school gave me a platform to learn how to think in a new way and how to approach problems and questions I had never considered before. It was less important that the knowledge and content of the major match up perfectly with my post-graduation plans, especially since I didn’t quite know what those plans were, when it came time to declare during the spring of Sophomore year. At the same time, being someone who was very intellectually curious, I wanted the content of my study to be something I was very passionate about and something I would be excited to write a large, 100-page thesis on.
I first understood that the History department needed to be my academic home after I took a class my sophomore fall with Professor David Bell, HIS 283. It was a course on the transformation of traditional military engagements into modern warfare, starting with the Battle of Agincourt in the fifteenth century to modern military history today. I learned that a lot of his research was on Napoléon and his impact on the increased scale and destruction of warfare. I became fascinated by this topic and decided I wanted to dedicate my study to the History department at Princeton.
What were some other memorable courses and professors in History?
One of my favorites courses was taught by Professor Linda Colley. She taught a fascinating course on Britain’s relationship with the world, its subjects and royal family during the Victorian Era and how their growth as a people and as a nation took place within the larger landscape of Europe and the global stage.
I also took a great course with Professor Yair Mintzker, on the Napoleonic Wars. We approached history in fun and engaging ways, such as analyzing paintings of the period, and seeking to understand how art was reacting to the pain and struggles of the time. Additionally Professor Jordan taught a fantastic course on medieval history, the first survey course I took within that time period. Again, a lot of my focus was on modern military history, but it was interesting to be able to look at a different time frame and to get a sense of the way historical study changes based on the type of historical accounts you’re dealing with. His passion for storytelling made that a wonderful experience. In more modern history, the firsthand accounts are a lot more easily accessible, but in medieval history, there’s more of a gray area in terms of how accurate sources are—things like epics, which have more fictionalized views of the things that are taking place. That was definitely one of the more unique classes that I took.
What was the most surprising thing that happened to you at Princeton or post-graduation?
The most surprising thing is how applicable History has been to some of the things I’ve done post-graduation. I worked in consulting at Bain and Company for about three years, and now I work in private equity. Those fields are very business-oriented with an emphasis on quantitative methodologies of problem solving. When I first entered this world, I feared I would be at a disadvantage, and that all the economics and business majors around me were going to have a leg up.
But it’s been very valuable to be comfortable with absorbing disparate pieces of information and distilling it into what matters most. Additionally, it gave me a background in thinking critically about storytelling: What’s my starting point, what’s my endpoint, and how do I structure my thoughts and use data effectively to communicate a strategic vision of investment thesis? Obviously I had to do on-the-job training to make it practical in terms of the specific things I would be doing, whether it was in private equity or consulting, but it was most surprising that history really did prepare me for that. Again, even though the content is so different, the way it helped me approach thinking was so applicable.
What else are you passionate about? Do you have any passion projects?
One big thing is my faith. It’s another thing that I try to practice and keep close to me. I was able to focus on it while I was at Princeton, and it’s a big part of my life outside of college.
Another interest of mine outside of history is music. Not just listening to it and trying to see as many live performances as possible, but also writing music. It’s something I started doing after college with two of my friends. We write songs, and we’ve done two mini projects. We call them mix tapes. That’s been an amazing outlet for me, to have something that’s not work-related. It’s something we can do together, and it’s helped maintain our friendship as well as maintain that passion we have for music.
I’m also passionate about comic books and things of that nature, particularly the place they have in the cinematic universe. So that’s something I try to keep up with and love exploring as much as I can.
And then the last thing I can’t forget to mention is political activism. It’s something that I was always passionate about, but increasingly so in recent times. I’m trying to figure out ways that I can not only stay informed but also stay as active as possible, outside of just voting.
If you could change something about your Princeton career, what would it be?
I think I would have taken more advantage of the opportunity to study abroad and study history in other places. It would have been nice to see how a different culture and a different perspective can affect how scholars look at some of the same historical events that I was studying here in the United States. There was a program with the University of Melbourne, where you had the opportunity to go for a semester and look at World War II and the implications of it, but from an Australian rather than a US perspective. That would have been fascinating. So that is my biggest regret.
What do you want your life to look like five years from now?
I think the biggest thing I’ve gotten out of being more than three years out of college is the perspective that it doesn’t really matter what I’m doing, but it does have to be in a field that I care deeply about. For the last three years, I’ve focused on learning as much as possible, which is why I went into consulting and private equity, where I didn’t really have a lot of experience before.
And while that’s been great and while I’ve had an opportunity to learn a lot of skills like modeling and data analysis that I think will serve me well in the future, I think for the next five years I want to focus more on really discovering what it is that makes me truly happy and motivated, whether it’s one of the passions I mentioned before or something I discover over the next few years. I would like it to be in some field where I feel like I’m using the skills I’ve collected over the last several years, but also something that makes me happy. I think it’s likely going to be in an area of public service, whether it’s working in criminal justice reform, which is something I care deeply about, or whether it’s doing something that’s more directly applicable to the political process in the United States.
I’m definitely considering law school, to re-position some of the professional things I want to do, and as always, education is the launching point to do so.
Do you have any advice that you would give to current History majors or people thinking about majoring in History?
Find a mentor and just try to learn as much as you can from them. One of the biggest things I got out of Princeton was the mentorship I was able to have from someone like Professor David Bell. Even after graduating, I have been able to stay in touch with him. But just as impactful as his mentorship today, was the effect he had on my educational path. Many of the decisions I made at Princeton were a result of my relationship with him.
Also do your best to take different types of History courses, even if you have a specific direction or discipline within History that you are really excited about—for me it was military history. Take courses that might be cross listed with History but have something to do with a different discipline that is interesting to you. There’s a really big world of scholarship in History at Princeton, which is really wonderful, so do your best to take advantage of that breadth. One of the best aspects of the history department was the opportunity to learn from some of the best scholars in the world in a small class setting. Having direct access to the likes of Professors Bell, Shawcross, Colley, and Jordan in precept challenged me and helped me grow as a scholar and thinker in ways I never could have imagined.
And the third thing I would say, if you’re on the fence about deciding whether History is right for you, I would say again that I firmly believe that almost anything you want to do afterwards is possible with a History degree. I know History majors who went on to attend medical school, business school, and law school just to name a few paths It’s important to think about how you want to spend your time at school, what you want to do with your independent work and your thesis. It takes up so much of your time, and so if you’re doing something that you love and if that’s History for you, then I think declaring as a History major would be the best thing you can do.