Jennifer El-Fakir '18

Jennifer El-Fakir; Photo credit: Jennifer El-Fakir

This interview has been collected and condensed by Kelly Lin-Kremer.

Class of 2018, History

Why don't you start off by telling me where you grew up and what you're currently doing?

I grew up in Central Jersey, about forty minutes away from Princeton. Princeton was a very big part of my life growing up. Whenever we would play the Princeton Town soccer team, my dad would take us to Thomas Sweet for ice cream.

My mom also grew up in Central Jersey, so she would go down to Firestone Library to study when she was home on breaks from college. Visiting Princeton kind of became a family tradition. I’ve always loved being in the area, so it was a no-brainer choosing Princeton once I got in.

Now I am in my second year of law school. I did my first year at George Washington Law School down in DC, and I transferred to Columbia this summer after working at the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. I am absolutely enjoying law school, and I’m pursuing a career in criminal prosecution.

Because I’ve completed my first-year classes, which are very regimented and geared toward the subjects that will be tested on the bar exam, I’m able to take everything that I'm interested in: evidence, criminal investigations, national security prosecutions, and the like.

Why did you choose History, and what else you were thinking about majoring in?

When I first applied to Princeton, I was thinking of majoring in either the Woodrow Wilson School (WWS)1 or the History Department (HIS). I've always been very interested in law and politics, so both of those felt like they could be a good fit.

I took two classes during my first semester at Princeton that introduced me to studying history. The first was my writing seminar, called Preserving the Past, which was a combination of history and archaeology. The second was Faith and Power in the Indian Ocean Arena (HIS 241). Almost immediately, I was drawn to the subject matter and the stories of the peoples and cultures we were studying, and I was excited to further explore the History department.

Throughout the year, I pursued the prerequisites for HIS, WWS, and Archaeology. I took a history archaeology seminar and Introduction to Archaeology, so by the end of my freshman year, I was mostly deciding between history and archaeology.

That summer, I went on a dig in Portugal with my writing seminar professor. As much as I loved archaeology, I realized the big draw was learning about ancient peoples and the past. The digging and being able to uncover artifacts was fun, but I was more fascinated by the people behind the artifacts.

When it came time to pick courses for the spring of my sophomore year, I remember that there were 17 History Department courses I wanted to take and only 4 archaeology courses. I figured, if there were 17 courses in one semester that I found fascinating, then I could see myself happily making History my home. Though it was only November of sophomore year, I declared History my major and never looked back.

My brother was also at Princeton, and he had given me the great advice of looking at past senior theses for different departments, to see what research questions students were asking, and again, it was the same thing: the History theses were so much more interesting to me than those in any of the other majors I was considering.

What were some memorable courses and professors in History?

English Constitutional History with Professor Bill Jordan was hands down probably my favorite class at Princeton, especially since I knew going into undergrad that I wanted to go to law school. The class was an opportunity for me to get a taste of legal scholarship ahead of time, and his lectures were just amazing.

It also helped that we ended up doing a play for our final. Somehow my precept convinced him to let us do an English play from the 1500s for our final exam, and to write about how it reflected the constitutional crisis of the era. We even crowned him king at the end of the play because he was the chair of the History Department at the time. It was just another example of how he truly made history come alive and let us explore it in an unconventional way. I think it also helped that our precept did very well on the midterm, so he trusted us to study.

Then the other course that I absolutely loved was my junior seminar with Professor Candiani, and I was able to build a great relationship with her. She was not only my junior seminar and fall Junior Paper adviser, but she also became my senior thesis adviser.

The thing I particularly loved about my Junior Seminar experience was that she taught us how to be historians. We learned how to identify sources, what questions to ask of them, and how to look at their biases and the reason they were written. When it came to maps, she taught us to think about how and why they were designed.

The seminar was on colonization, and I really enjoyed learning about that time period, because it’s a clash of cultures, it’s an exchange around the world, but it's also a period of crisis and development of international law and in the legal regimes of each colonial empire.

What was the most surprising thing that happened to you either at Princeton or post-graduation?

I think the most surprising thing would be the fact that I could write a whole senior thesis about pirates. It didn't have to be the most academic-sounding thing. My thesis, titled “Stealing Rum and Justifying It Later,” was about the legal and diplomatic history of pirates.

I've always loved the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but I didn't know that I would end up studying seafaring activities to such a great extent. I got to travel the world on the Stone Davis Prize, researching at different archives in England and France, all because I was studying pirates.

The breadth of what you are able to study at Princeton was a wonderful surprise. You can taste all these different aspects of history and culture, whether you are learning about the High Middle Ages or Southeast Asian global history.

For example, in my sophomore year, I was going to visit South Africa on tour with the Glee Club, so I signed up for a History class on southern African history. The class made my trip so much more meaningful, because I had the opportunity to learn about the history beforehand. I don't know any other place where you could have an upcoming trip and have the opportunity to learn the whole history right beforehand, and it not being a coincidence given the breadth of opportunities available. There were at least two or three History classes that semester I could have taken on southern Africa. That was fantastic.

Why don't you talk about what else you're passionate about aside from history?

I am very passionate about the law, obviously. I'm spending another three years in school, taking the time to learn as much as I can. I've wanted to be a lawyer for as long as I can remember and specifically to work in criminal law as a prosecutor.

I'm very interested in ensuring that justice is served when there is a crime, but also ensuring that the system itself is just and fair. There's definitely a movement of people beginning to see that and working towards improving the criminal justice system. I’m looking forward to exploring this firsthand through my externships and internship opportunities this year. I'll be at the Brooklyn DA's office this spring, and the Manhattan DA's office this summer.

Outside of my interest in the law, I love music and performing. I joined Columbia Law School’s version of the Triangle Club, which is called the Law Revue Show.

I find that it's necessary to have a creative outlet no matter what I’m doing, and I'm looking forward to singing all my life, whether in a community choir or in a fun, farcical, parody production like the Law Revue Show, where we take modern songs and put a law school twist on them and get to have fun.

Especially because I am a transfer student, the Law Revue Show was a fantastic way for me to meet a lot of students at law school that I wouldn't have necessarily met because I didn't have classes with them last year. So that was wonderful.

What are some of the biggest lessons you learned post-graduation?

I've learned this at first at Princeton, but it's still helping me now: the importance of the research skills that we learned in freshman Writing Seminar and our Junior Seminar. Research skills are so important, especially now that I'm working on my Note, which is the law school equivalent of the Junior Paper.

It's about 35 pages, and I think it's a lot easier for me compared to many other students because I have a history of writing research papers of this length and magnitude that I don’t think many students get at other schools and institutions.

Those skills of researching—whether it's going to the library, pulling books, or learning how to use databases—aren’t just for academia or history. Research skills have been highlighted over and over in my job interviews. They are crucial in the legal field, and I'm pretty sure in a lot of other fields, and so having that amazing foundation that the History Department gave me was wonderful.

The other thing I've learned is to make time for yourself and have fun, especially as a graduate student. We get caught up in our work a little too much. My friends who are working every day, even if they have very late hours, once they leave the office, they more often than not get to leave their work at work. For grad students, our work always comes home with us. We are always thinking, I could be writing this, I could be reading that, but it’s important to start transitioning towards a professional timeline, even if it has to be those longer hours of 9 to 8 or 9 to 9 rather than a 9 to 5 thing.

I think understanding what's going on in life, what's going on in the world, seeing your friends—all of that informs how you work and what you research, and it just makes you a more productive person if you can take a step back and relax.

What does history mean to you?

I would say what drew me to the subject first is wanting to understand more about my past, my family, and my ancestry. I come from a very multicultural background, and so my parents would take us to museums and memorial sites whenever we visited my grandparents overseas or took road trips up and down the Northeast. It was ingrained in me from a young age that it was important to understand your past if you wanted to understand today and who you are.

When I got to the History Department, history became about more than learning about my own past. I was studying the past foundations of different modern states, especially because I was researching and studying the colonial period. I’ve come to see history as very much about understanding who came before us and the mistakes they made, so we can try not to cause the same problems.

I had a professor once who told me history doesn't repeat, it rhymes, and that's very true.

You can look to the past to find solutions for today, or to see where the cracks are in today's world. I think no matter what field you're in, history is a part of informing that—no matter what they're doing, whether it’s scholarship, policy, or science. People are always looking to see what came first, where there's a gap, and where we might go from here. History is a major part of that.

Is there any advice that you would offer to current History majors or people thinking about majoring in History?

Definitely take a course on a culture you know nothing about that. I think history is a way to open everyone's eyes to different societies, cultures, and ways of life. The more you open yourself to the world and learn about others, the more you're able to build bridges and broaden your horizons.

I think it's always wonderful to be curious and to explore in new ways. That's part of what drew me to the whole history of piracy and colonization. It was about explorers, and people challenging what they knew and going out into the unknown and learning.

You should also explore simply because the department and the professors are amazing.

I would say my last piece of advice would be to go to office hours. I learned so much just by talking to Professors Jordan, Candiani, and Laffan. They are so knowledgeable. Often I would go to talk about one reading, and I’d leave with ten new things I wanted to look up, and always fascinated by what they just taught me.

You’ll get ideas for research or learn about other classes you should take in the department. These professors do this job because they want to help students and because they want to help cultivate the next generation, whether or not you want to go into academia like them or not.

I got some absolutely amazing advice on fellowships to apply to, how to handle law school applications, and whether I should go straight to law school after Princeton. I spoke with my professors when I saw where I got into law school the first time around, and I talked with them about being a transfer student.

Even now, I could call them up or email them if I have questions, and they are still involved and excited to hear what I’m doing. You only get that by going to office hours and really getting to know these professors. It's wonderful when you have mentors like that.

1 The Woodrow Wilson School (WWS) was renamed to the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) in 2020.