As I write this on the eve of my strange virtual graduation, I can’t help but think of my peers. During my freshman year, I met Hannah the Middle East expert, Spencer the political economy major and Henry the highschool lacrosse player turned Arabic student. At the time, I couldn’t wrap my head around how these people had found meaning and purpose. Come my junior year, I was still desperate to find my own spark. It felt like I had tried it all: numerous minors, enrollment in two of Georgetown University’s undergraduate schools, four majors and even a brief stint at a finance internship. One week, I was a European Union scholar with a German minor and the next a good old-fashioned international politics major. Nothing felt like it was authentically mine to explore and nothing seemed to stick. But my period of self-discovery taught me a valuable lesson: the best journeys are far from linear.
On a whim, I sent a cold email to the communications, culture and technology professor Meg Leta Jones asking to do research for her. I had no idea what a legal privacy scholar did, but I wanted to learn from a woman in technology. To my surprise, she said yes, I could work with her on one terrifying condition: I had to sign up for her graduate-level course “International and Comparative Privacy and Surveillance.” This email exchange also happened to be on the last day of add/drop. My heart sunk as I typed out a reply filled with nerves and apprehensions. Could I really handle a 700 level class? To this question, I got a powerful “Yes, you can do it” from Jones.
I found my passion in her class. Within a few short weeks, the study of privacy was all around me. I was doing research for Jones, attending her class and reading anything and everything privacy related. Then, I made an even more terrifying leap of faith: I sent in an application to the BSFS Circumnavigator Grant pitching a study of civil society members and how they understand the right to privacy. Soon, I was conducting privacy research across six countries with little more than a backpack and two universal power adapters. As cheesy as it sounds, I couldn’t help but fall for privacy along the way. I love that nothing is final, answered or even standardized. I adore that rich, beautiful theory overlaps with the everyday challenges of the people I interviewed.
This piece is not a dedication to the founders of surveillance theory, although they are wonderful. Instead, it’s a message: coming of age stories are often far from glamorous. Mine certainly involved more rejection letters, dense theoretical readings and late nights staring at the cinder block walls of Lauinger Library than I expected. But over time, the study of privacy became a vehicle through which I could test my own limits. It led me to travel the world alone, to internships where I learned from experienced practitioners and to classes where my peers pushed open my intellectual horizons.
In one of the least dystopian lines of “1984,” George Orwell writes, “perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.” Georgetown is far from perfect, but it is a place that has loved and understood me during a formative time in my life, during periods when I wasn’t always certain my Georgetown story would work out. If I can give undergraduates a few pieces of advice: be brave, say yes often and know that if you do it right, your story will be anything but easy. As I stood at the edge of my metaphorical cliff, I was overwhelmed by the seeming randomness of my new academic love that was changing the course of my Georgetown career. But I am so glad I took the chance. Hard times followed as I questioned what gives me meaning. I was scared and even lonely as I discovered what makes me uniquely happy. However, I am leaving Georgetown infinitely more able to understand who I am and what I care about. In short, Hoya Saxa and happy exploring.
Fiona Singer is a senior in the School of Foreign Service.