Studying terrorists and preparing for a career in international diplomacy

Joseph ColesPhoto/Mike Lovett

Joseph Coles '22

At a career day during a summer camp when he was in high school in Marietta, Georgia, Joseph Coles '22 realized he wanted to be a foreign service officer.

"There was a speaker from the State Department. They talked about being a tool of diplomacy and that grabbed me," Coles said. "The idea of being abroad and representing the United States was so intriguing."

It was still his goal when he enrolled at Brandeis as a Posse Scholar two years later, but he wasn't quite sure of his next steps. Things became clearer on a trip to Israel as part of Brandeis Hillel's Perspectives program in between his first and second year at Brandeis. 

"That's when I got really interested in the Middle East. The region is so complex, so nuanced," he said. "I decided when I got home, I would learn Arabic and study the region more deeply."

Back on campus, he enrolled in courses in Arabic and Islamic and Middle Eastern studies. He also learned from a friend about Lawrence A. Wien Professor of International Cooperation Jytte Klausen's Western Jihadism Project Lab

He had never met Klausen but sent her an email, anyway. She offered him a position. It was the start of three years of immersive work in the lab, where Coles developed profiles and maintained databases on individuals connected to terrorist activity. During the 2021-22 school year, he served as lab coordinator, training and supporting a team of students – all while double majoring in politics and international studies, and minoring in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies.

"I didn't think a social sciences person could do serious research,” he said. “The idea of a social sciences lab that could be doing work that is not only fascinating but corresponds to what I want to do for a career: It was unbelievable to me."

This summer, Coles will hold a fellowship at The King’s College of London's International Security and Intelligence Programme before heading to Texas A&M to work toward a master's program in international security in the fall.

"Working with Professor Klausen has been incredible. She's so knowledgeable, but also so accessible, and she cares so much about students. It's not just her telling us what to do, it's her consulting with us, asking us what makes sense. She wants us to be able to have an informed conversation." he said. "Looking to my future, I absolutely believe my experience in her lab has given me a leg up."

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