Arabic Class Leads to Career in International Affairs

As a first-year, Caitriona Cobb challenged herself with an Arabic-language class and loved it. Now, the international affairs major has landed her ideal job as Africa content manager for a government contractor.

By Lindley Estes ’12

International affairs major Caitriona Cobb ’17 landed her “ideal job” as Africa content manager for Tesla Government Inc. in May. Her work involves research and writing for the contracting company – no relation to the famous car maker – that helps government clients manage and share information.

The Washington, D.C., resident said that in focusing on such a large continent, there’s “always something new to learn.” And each day she builds on her Mary Washington education.

Cobb’s interest in international affairs started at UMW, and it started by accident, thanks in part to her open mind. In high school, she had studied Spanish and wanted to learn Latin. But when the first-year student first signed up for classes, the ancient language was full. Arabic fit into her busy schedule, so she went for it.

“I was just flexible and open to the experience,” she said. And that led to more learning. “You can’t study language without a taste of culture.”

Her interest in Arabic-speaking countries of the Middle East and North Africa led to classes in political science and to her major in international affairs. Letting her curiosity guide her, she discovered a field she’d never before considered. Cobb had originally intended to study biology, but “I didn’t particularly love” labs, she said, and she found international affairs classes “so interesting.”

Cobb grew up as one of 10 children in a military family. Still, she said, “I didn’t know much about Iraq or Afghanistan. There was so much I didn’t know politically, and vast cultural knowledge I didn’t have.”

Before her open mind led her to international affairs, it led her to UMW. At first, Cobb was intent on attending a large university, but her sister, undergraduate history major Fiona Cobb McGonigal ’08, M.Ed. ’09, spelled out the benefits of a liberal arts education and of the University of Mary Washington.

UMW’s interdisciplinary curriculum allowed Cobb to minor in linguistics to further specialize her knowledge of how languages intersect worldwide. She distinguished herself academically in international affairs, winning the department’s Lewis P. Fickett Jr. Award for Excellence and receiving departmental honors.

But it wasn’t only academic knowledge that Cobb took from UMW to the workforce. She was on Class Council, was involved in the Arab Culture Club, volunteered with Habitat for Humanity, and served as a resident assistant. Organizing club events gave her practical skills, she said.

After getting her UMW degree, she studied at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and followed her curiosity to Amman, Jordan, where she did field research on higher education reform. Last spring, she earned a master’s degree in international affairs, specializing in the Middle East.

Cobb’s drive to go abroad and seek firsthand knowledge was born at Mary Washington, where she found that there’s “not just one type of UMW person.” She became friends with people of different majors and backgrounds starting her first year in Russell Hall, where she and other residents bonded over trudging uphill to class and enduring hot autumn temperatures without air conditioning. (These days, Russell Hall rooms are temperature controlled.)

For Cobb, finding a path to her ideal job started at UMW with simply having an open mind.

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