Alex Penler (USA)
MSc Empires, Colonialism and Globalisation (2014/15)
Why I chose LSE
My last year of my undergraduate, I knew that I wanted to study history at a master’s level. As an undergraduate, I was a dual major in history and political science (with a concentration in global studies). Throughout my undergraduate career, I had made sure not to pick between my two favorite subjects (and subsequent career path) of history and international relations. I had spent one semester in Rome studying history and one semester in Washington, DC studying foreign policy and spent the summers interning twice for a U.S. Senator and then at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History, division of Political History. While my undergraduate thesis had been on foreign aid and women’s health, I also did an independent study on gender and class history in the 19th century comparing women in regency England with Gilded Age America and most of my classes were on world history and international politics.
I knew that I wanted to study outside of the United States for my master’s and the UK was the perfect choice because it was in English, were one year programmes and I was very interested in British and transatlantic history at the time. When researching programmes, I found LSE’s International History department and the two different master's programmes, Empires, Colonialism, and Globalisation and then the History of International Relations programme. I had always been interested in how empires shaped current international relations and development and the classes looked particularly interesting. Only two universities in the world, LSE and Georgetown, specifically focused on history of international relations and diplomatic history, so they were both good options as were the other universities I was accepted to in the UK. But I also had an interest in the intelligence history and the history of epidemics, two classes that only LSE offered in the entire world.
Coming from a family who is interested in economics and financial systems, I knew that a Master of Science would also differentiate me from other history graduates and that LSE had a very good reputation in the United States so that would help once I graduated and was job searching. LSE also had a very diverse student body which meant that besides getting a great education, it would give me the opportunity to meet and befriend people from around the world.
My experience as a student
When I first accepted LSE, I joined a Facebook group for incoming students in the International History department, many of whom are some of my closest friends today. One of them became my roommate for the year and the rest I still stay connected with, no matter how far apart we are from one another. Being at LSE was the first time I found other students like me who were as passionate about history and international politics. I fell in love with late nights debating in the pub, not just with my friends but also my professors. When I arrived at LSE, I immediately signed up for Professor Neitzel’s Secret Intelligence class, which you had to apply for, and the Empire’s course. I had planned to take the class on epidemics in Economics but the professor ended up being on leave so I was asked if I might take the Napoleon and the Making of Modern Europe course. While Napoleon, certainly wasn’t my first choice, I was interested in the relations with the wider world and Dr Keenan became my most supportive professor at LSE, and he’s the one who continually encouraged me to apply for a PhD after I graduated. The class was smaller and he shaped it to fit the students’ interests so I ended up enjoying it much more than I expected.
I actually can’t decide which class I loved most. The Intelligence class, which is sadly not offered anymore, dove deep into intelligence culture and pop culture which I really enjoyed and I became super close with some of the other classmates in the class, especially over our long weekend field trip to Berlin to visit some Cold War historical sites. I also enjoyed the reading and discussion in the Empire class which were mostly based on read about this empire and how it’s affected the modern world and then discuss. The class has definitely been the most useful in my professional work since I’m able to understand the roots of modern political problems. I also found ways to write papers on how global pandemics affected international relations, such as the Plague or psychiatric in colonial Africa, so I still got to continue my interest in that field as well.
It wasn’t until I was at LSE that I began to really recognize my interest in gender history. I had attended an all-women’s undergraduate college, so all of my classes had focused on women in some form and my internship at the Smithsonian had focused on women’s suffrage and the Equal Rights Amendment. I constantly would ask about women’s’ experience and bringing in a gender perspective in both intelligence history and Napoleonic (which was rather novel at the time) and Professor Neitzel called me a gender historian which was the first time that had ever happened. It soon became my niche and gave me the opportunity to pick a thesis topic that was very close to my heart. I decided to study the relationship between American heiresses who married into the British aristocracy between 1870 and 1914 and its relationship to Anglo-American relations. Unfortunately, two months before I was to submit my thesis, a book by an American historian was published with my exact thesis and I completely had to rework my dissertation. But I had two great supervisors at LSE who were incredibly supportive and had the chance to visit archives in the United States and around the UK, so overall it was a great experience.
How the programme impacted my worldview
There were two different debates that we had in Empire’s class that have really stuck with me all these years later. One was a paper on “is America an Empire?” and the other was a discussion on “out of all the empires we’ve studied, who is the least bad?”. Previously I would never have said that America was an empire, even though I knew full well of their history with the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, etc. But my classmates, who were from all over the world, all had a completely different view and opened my mind to viewing U.S. foreign policy in the early 20th century from a different perspective and how this relates to the U.S.’ involvement in Japan, Iraq, Vietnam, etc in the later 20th/ early 21st century.
By learning about the different empires around the world, you also learn about different cultures, political systems and how major conflicts arise. This gives me a deeper understanding of not only modern history but also modern society. Being able to understand other cultures and why they make decisions really informs political and economic decisions and when I’m listening to the news today, I’m always reminded by a little something I might have learned in one of my classes at LSE. For example, studying the Persian empire informs my knowledge about current events in Iran or my Napoleon and the Making of Modern Europe consistently can be tied to Brexit debates within the UK and continental Europe. Even when I was recently traveling in Peru and India, I found myself sharing with friends knowledge I had learned in my Empires class about the Mughals or the Spanish.
While I always joke about having a Master in Empires and Colonialism, it is actually really helpful to have a Master in Globalisation because of how interconnected our world is today and how that directly relates to our past experiences. All of history is cause and effect, but with modern international relations, if you don’t understand the historical events and cultures of different nations and peoples, you will never understand why decisions are made and what their impact is.
What I have been doing since graduating
Living in London, I also had the opportunity to intern with UNICEF UK for part of my programme, which gave me more concrete communications skills, including social media, writing and graphic design. My degree gave me strong analytical, critical thinking and problem solving skills, but my internship taught me hard skills that I would need in my career. After I graduated, I started working as a Communications Officer for a USAID project in sub-Saharan on HIV/ AIDS which merged my skills in writing and communications with my interest in global health.
After a few years, I decided I wanted to shift over towards more Public Diplomacy work, since my strongest interest has always been educational and cultural affairs (I also strongly believe that foreign aid and global health programs are another arm of many governments’ public diplomacy). I soon started working for the Fulbright Program in the MENA region helping students come to the United States to do their graduate work. While I loved helping them accomplish their dreams, I was constantly reminded about how much I missed historical research and consistently would find random historical rabbit holes to dive into. I created my own historical research projects, even while working three jobs and volunteering for a non-profit 15 hours a week. When I mentioned this to Dr Keenan whenever I visited London, he kept encouraging me to look into PhD programs.
I eventually came across a group of oral histories done of diplomatic wives in the 20th century and the work they did was extremely similar to the public diplomacy work today and reminded me of some of the volunteering the American heiresses did in the Gilded Age. I started to learn more about diplomatic wives and consumed books on them and decided I wanted to study this more in-depth, so I decided to apply for PhD programs, especially when I discovered there was a huge gap in the literature when it came to American diplomatic wives post World War II.
Once again, I had to make the decision between Georgetown, LSE and Oxford, but when I thought about it, LSE was the best choice overall. I liked that LSE was a 4-year programme and that the department focused so heavily on the Cold War and recent history. Since I knew that I didn’t want to go into academia after I finish my PhD, LSE was the only university that actively encouraged students to prepare and go into other careers afterwards. Since I was studying diplomatic history, LSE once again had the knowledge base I needed and the overall community. Plus as a student with a disability, I had found LSE incredibly supportive during my masters degree and I knew this would continue during my PhD.
I definitely haven’t regretted my decision since and have loved (almost) every minute of my programme. My cohort and I are extremely close, even when I’m in the U.S. on field work, we’re talking every day, and the department itself is so supportive. Now I’m a year and half into my PhD program, with two and a half more to go and I’m enjoying my research.