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IAS Major Katherine Holden Presents at Top Conference in Jordan

Katherine Holden poses at the Nuclear Forum conference.
Katherine Holden poses at the Nuclear Forum conference.

Katherine Holden, a junior international studies major from the Washington, D.C. area, had the opportunity of a lifetime last semester when a paper she co-wrote was selected for a prestigious conference in Amman, Jordan. There were two components to her November trip: a two-day course for future diplomats hosted by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) and the conference itself, hosted by the Arab Institute for Security Studies (ACSIS). Holden was one of a small group of undergraduates who was able to travel to Amman to attend the events, which she calls “definitely a one in a million kind of opportunity.”

Connecting Coursework and Summer Research

Holden co-wrote her conference paper with Gawdat Bahgat, a professor at National Defense University in Washington, D.C. During the summers, she works as a research assistant for Bahgat, who has been a close family friend for years. “He’s really helped me a lot,” she says. “He wrote a book two years ago that I helped him with, and I’ve done a few other things with him besides this.” The success of the paper, on the Biden administration’s energy policy and its impact in the U.S. and Middle East, came as a surprise to Holden: “We wrote it in the summer, and it was published on an Italian media site. I didn’t know it was going to go that far, to me being at a conference. Apparently there were about 60 applicants, and I was one of 10 undergraduates chosen to go."

To help fund her travel, Holden applied for and was awarded a College of International Studies Student Travel Support Grant. Once she arrived in Jordan and began attending the GCSP and ACSIS events, she was pleasantly surprised by how closely the topics aligned with her coursework in the Department of International and Area Studies, where she is pursuing the accelerated BA/MA degree. In particular, the Global Security course she took in summer 2022 with Professor Aqil Shah provided “a broader understanding” that she relied upon during her time in Jordan.

“The GCSP event was two days, and it was a course that was supposed to get you prepared for the ACSIS conference,” she explains. “For most of it, I felt like I knew everything that was happening. In Global Security, we learned about the JCPOA and that was one of the main topics of the conference. And there were a few other things I learned about in Global Security, like the Chemical Weapons Convention, Biological Weapons Convention, that were covered during this GCSP course.”

Two other courses that prepared Holden for her international experience were Technology and War, with Professor John Emery, and Comparative Politics of the Middle East, with Professor Samer Shehata. “By the end of the semester, [Technology and War] was my favorite class,” she says. “I told Professor Emery about the conference early on and he read my paper for it. He offered so much support. It was very interesting to be in that class and then go to that conference and see the parallels.” Though her Comparative Politics course wasn’t weapons-related, Holden notes that it was also “very helpful” in providing context for the dynamics between different countries in the Middle East, which she witnessed firsthand at the conference. In addition, Holden has taken three semesters of Arabic, which helped her navigate her short time abroad.

A Taste of Jordanian Culture

The four-day trip to Jordan was Holden’s first time in the country; a two-week trip to Morocco in summer 2022 was her only previous foray into the Middle East/North Africa. Traveling with Bahgat and her mother, Holden’s focus was on the conference, but she did have an opportunity to soak up some culture. “I expected it to be similar to Morocco, but I don’t think it was as tourist-centered,” she says. “You felt like you were just there with the local people, and everybody was very nice; they couldn’t be any more accommodating and polite.” Holden’s favorite cultural experience was a traditional Jordanian dinner at the house of a fellow conference attendee and friend of Bahgat. “It was a very interesting experience and something that I’m happy we got to do, because when you go to another country of course you see certain things, but you don’t necessarily get to be in the culture.”

"Nerve-Wracking" and Rewarding

At the ACSIS conference, Holden presented as part of a “next generation” panel with other undergraduates. She calls presenting her paper for hundreds of people “nerve-wracking,” but adds, “It was basically all these college students and graduate students from around the world getting together to talk about what we think, which was a very interesting thing to be able to do.” She also had the opportunity to chair a panel of scholars, including Bahgat. “That was also very scary; I had to sit there with the translation earphones on and introduce everybody and time them."

During her time in Jordan, Holden had the opportunity to connect with like-minded peers and with established scholars in international studies. “I got to meet a lot of people,” she says. In the GCSP course that kicked off the trip, “There were only four of us undergraduate students — two from Egypt and I think the other was from Italy — we did become like a little close group." And at the ACSIS conference, "I got to network with a ton of other professional people in the field. I met an American scholar, Jennifer Mackey, who works at a think-tank, and she gave a presentation on chemical weapons that was probably the coolest thing I’ve seen. She definitely made me think and made me actually want to continue on that path of policy and international affairs.”

A Transition to Italy

This early professional experience has only strengthened Holden’s interest in pursuing her master’s in international studies, and eventually, she hopes to attend law school to study international law. First things first, though: Holden is spending the spring 2023 semester at OU in Arezzo, the University of Oklahoma’s study center in Italy, where she will complete an internship at the municipal court of Arezzo. “They told me my job is going to be write emails to the United States from the mayor’s office,” she explains. “When I saw the list of possible internships, this seemed like it tied most closely into what I’ve been doing. I saw the municipal court and it says it’s based on EU policy, and I thought, well, if I’ve already done Arab policy I might expand to EU policy.” She will also take courses in global social problems, art history and organized crime while abroad.

Pursuing Undergraduate Research in IAS

Holden’s experience shows just how many opportunities are out there for undergraduate students interested in international and area studies. IAS majors or minors who want to engage in more research projects and apply to conferences are encouraged to talk to their professors about the possibilities, and to apply for the Student Travel Support Grant should funding be an issue. “It really has impacted my education,” Holden says of her experiences last semester, “especially seeing as my teachers were so open to me going to the conference. I thought I was going to lose points for being absent, but they were all fine with it, and they thought that was such a great thing for me to be able to do. Of course, that’s the best type of learning you can do.”

Katherine Holden is a junior at OU currently enrolled in the BA/MA in International Studies program. For more information on the BA/MA or opportunities in the Department of International and Area Studies, visit


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