Ari Alexander


A senior’s upbringing gave him a passion for transforming the world. As a Marshall Scholar, he’s going to work on a little piece of it.

Photo by Candace diCarlo


If you talk to Ari Alexander (C’01) about his Marshall Scholarship, you will hear him tell you at least three times what he wants to do with his life. He wants to help people. This commitment is the text of Ari Alexander’s life; the rest is commentary.

Now he’s going to go study.

The prestigious Marshall Scholarship funds 40 students each year to study anywhere in the United Kingdom for two to three years. Alexander, a disarmingly straightforward American history major from Providence, R.I., decided to pursue a master’s degree in comparative ethnic conflict at Queens University in Belfast.

It’s the next step in a path which has already led Alexander to found an Arab-Jewish dialogue organization on campus, co-chair Penn’s black-Jewish dialogue group, and work at a summer camp for Palestinian and Israeli youth.

In Alexander’s tidy apartment, which boasts a poster of Martin Luther King on the ceiling above the bed (“He has a dream,” Alexander quipped obliquely, by way of explanation), we drank orange juice and talked about the Marshall, idealism, ethnic identity and Alexander’s struggles with his own identity.

Q. Do you have plans for your life in Belfast?

A. In my program, the classes are only 6:30 to 8:30 at night, three nights a week. Other than that, I’ll be working for a nonprofit doing human rights work, reading a couple hours a day, bartending or waitering, going out at night into the music and theatre and arts scenes, walking the streets of Belfast, maybe picking up a new hobby I don’t even know about yet, traveling all over Ireland. People do all kinds of things with their year after college.

Q. How did your interest in ethnic conflict begin?

A. I spent my freshman year of college in Israel. I did research on the Palestinian refugee situation for one of my courses there and it showed me that there was another side to the story that had been so ingrained in me my whole life. My parents and my teachers weren’t right-wing, but I had a narrative. The stories and voices and emotions of the Palestinians were not included in that.

When I came to Penn, one of my interests quickly became the way race plays out in this country. I studied American history here, mostly modern race relations in urban areas. And what ethnic conflict is — the way ethnic identity plays out on a global scale when it leads to violence.

One of the problems is that if I was going to study cancer research, even if I wasn’t sure that I was gonna be the one who finds the cure for it, I’d have a confidence that the world was moving toward a cure for cancer. And I really don’t feel like that about ending ethnic conflict. I don’t have a confidence that the world’s moving toward ending violence. But I want to do the best I can.

Q. It’s not up to you to complete the work…

A. Right! Famous Jewish saying, right? …But I can’t neglect it. And it’s hard, because I really am an idealist, and I really do expect big things, and I’m pretty sure that I won’t be able to deliver on my own expectations, but that’s no reason to run away.

Maybe it’s not logical. Maybe it’s informed by my Jewish spirituality, of transforming the world and making it better. But I don’t accept that this is the way it has to be. I want to try to meet as many people who are trying, and network, and form groups and movements, to try and do this piecemeal, wherever I feel I can be most helpful.

Q. What did you learn working with Israeli and Palestinian youth at the Seeds of Peace summer camp?

A. One thing I learned was how important it is, at least for teenagers, and I imagine for everyone, to feel that the other side understands them. And that sounds cheesy, but you really feel this pain. And so much anger and frustration and misunderstanding just comes from the refusal to affirm the other person’s right to who they think they are.

The story of ethnicity and race in America is different than violent situations around the world with war that kills millions of people. I think the way it plays out here is a lot more about otherness on a sociological level. That can break down when people come in contact and truly want to get to know the other. On this campus, that’s what happens when people interact out of a true sense of wanting to get to know people that are different from them. People see that their differences exist, but that isn’t a reason for them not to hang out. In global ethnic conflict, it’s a much greater challenge.

Q. How does your own identity fit into this?

A. I’ve been struggling through college with the role that Judaism plays in my life. I used to be very observant. As I got to know people that had so many different ways of expressing religion and identity and meaning, it became more difficult for me to maintain the passion for my Jewish identity that made me wear tzitzit [fringes], pray three times a day as Jews pray all around the world, and keep Shabbat in a world Jewish community.

But I still have this very powerful sense of spirituality. I think that as time goes on I’ll be able to find ways of reconnecting, knowing that it’s a piece of my story and that it greatly infuses my social vision. These thoughts and ideas and passions don’t come out of thin air and I didn’t read them in a book in college. They come from a strong moral foundation that I got being raised in a Jewish community by a strong Jewish family.

I’m most on my game when I’m pumped with inspiration, when the little things of everyday life are full of conviction and spirituality and happiness and joy.

And there are other times when I wallow. I’m passive and I’m waiting and I feel down and meaningless and like the things I’m doing are directionless. So I know that I want to maintain connection and humility that enables me to keep open channels of communication between me and God, whatever God means.

Q. How did you feel when you found out you had received the Marshall?

A. When I got the call, I thought it was a joke. ’Cause, you know, I didn’t really plan to apply for any of these things, and it was all very last-minute.

When you find out that you’re closer than randomly throwing your hat in the ring for one of these fellowships, you get stacks of information, the tried-and-true how to successfully interview for the Marshall. And I didn’t read any of it. It freaked me out. The whole thing was like this empire of elitism.

I gave thought to turning it down. You could spend your whole life using the language of helping people to impress people with power, just get more and more entrenched in privilege, and I don’t want that.

Academics without a vision of making the world better doesn’t work for me. So part of my discomfort with winning this award was being surrounded by the rhetoric of academic rigor and excellence as what’s valued. Ultimately, I only want to use my education for the sake of helping people. I’m impatient right now, because of how many problems there are.

I have no way of knowing where this step will directly lead, what I’ll look like five years from now, but I’m excited to embrace it with all its complexity.

Originally published on February 1, 2001