Interview with Megan Braun
Megan Braun participated in the 3rd OTI trip in 2010. She graduated from UCI in 2010 as a history major and is currently a Rhodes Scholar (widely considered to be the world’s most prestigious scholarship) completing a MPhil and DPhil in International Relations at Oxford. After Oxford, she will attend Yale for her J.D. Her research focuses on the development of U.S. drone policy and the accompanying ethical issues. She has published two academic articles in Ethics & International Affairs and has a forthcoming book chapter on the history of CIA drone operations to be published later this year in an edited volume by Cambridge University Press. Her work has been featured on CNN, Foreign Policy and Christian Science Monitor. Fun trivia: In September 2012, she completed a relay swim of the English Channel with five other Rhodes Scholars. She is also the captain of the Oxford women’s water polo team. I had the pleasure of sitting down with her on skype to talk about the OTI trip and her life thereafter.
What comes to mind when I say ‘Olive Tree Initiative’?
Friends, learning, complicated, Israel, Palestine, excellent, and transformative. Is that a good list?
Transformative is an interesting word. How has OTI transformed you, the way you think, the way you work, the way you aspire?
I’ve had a pretty clear vision for a long time about what I’ve wanted to do and that has been consistent over time. But I think the Olive Tree Initiative really made it concrete and brought home to me some of the difficulties of foreign policy, which I study from an academic perspective, and an understanding of how complicated it is with two different political communities that have different opinions about a conflict. The violent nature of the conflict has been really illuminating. As someone who studies the ethics and laws of warfare, it was incredibly eye opening to visit Israel and walk through Sderot and look at the rocket casing and to walk through cities in the West Bank and think about how a Palestinian would perceive their own security. I think about them frequently as I continue to read about the region and conflicts throughout the world.
You mention walking through Sderot and the West Bank. On that note, why should someone travel? Why not read books and save airplane ticket money and a lot of fuel? What is it about walking through those places that drive it home for you?
Fear. I mean that is the difference between reading a book about Sderot and going to Sderot. When you go to Sderot, you realize that collateral damage is not just a phrase that we use when we talk about conflicts. It is something that happens to people, and I think you have a profound sense of the risk that these people deal with on a daily basis when you drive to one of these cities and you discuss what to do if you hear a siren warning of a rocket attack. If this happens then you all need to get out of the bus and lie on the road. Later you stand on the streets of Sderot and do a mock test of who can make it to the rocket shelter in time. Half your classmates, young, fit, 20 year olds, don’t make it. You can’t understand what that feels like until you’re there. Similarly, I don’t think you can understand what it feels like to be a Palestinian until you have to go through a checkpoint from Israel to the West Bank, until you recognize how inconvenient it is to travel around the West Bank, until you see what it is like to see an IDF soldier walking through your community. I think those things can’t be appreciated from reading. I think they have to be experienced.
Are these experiences transformative?
I think so. There comes a point in our lives when we realize the issues we study don’t exist in the abstract but they have a reality associated with them, and that really begins when we begin our career and we have to start acting on the challenges that we’ve been studying for years. I think the first moment when you switch from abstraction to reality is a very powerful one. I think for a lot of students, OTI is that moment. They’ve thought about conflict for a long time. And this is the first time it becomes real to them.
What kind of person would get the most out of OTI?
I think you have to be both inquisitive and open minded, and certainly a critical thinker because you hear competing narratives. It reminds me of a quote by Aristotle, who said, ‘It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it,” and I think that’s an indispensible skill for anyone who is going to go on the OTI trip. You recognize that you are going to hear a series of competing narratives generally grouped in the two categories but much more nuanced, and you really have to be able to think through the implications of all perspectives. So that probing inquisitive mind, a mind that can simultaneously contemplate two competing truths, is very important.
What is a memorable moment on the OTI trip for you?
I think there are a series of fabulous memories. One moment really stands out for me. Sderot was such a powerful experience for me in terms of understanding what it would be like to live in a conflict zone, I mean, to really live in a conflict zone, where rockets could land at any time. I remember having a conversation with Daniel Brunstetter (UCI political science professor) on the bus ride back, I imagine we were going to Jerusalem. Daniel and I have a shared interest in just war theory. We were writing an article together at the time, and I just remember telling Daniel, ‘this is all so fruitless, right? Why would I want to study this? Why do we even talk about justice in a conflict… I don’t think this is something worth devoting a lot of time to.” It was that moment of profound self-doubt, that came with a kind of tension, frustration and emotion. It welled up inside of me in Sderot. Daniel and I had a very deep conversation on the ride back and that was honestly a kind of low point. And I am very committed to studying the law and ethics of warfare and continued to work on it in the years since, but that was a moment where I think I had the most doubt in my future and the possibility to create change and to have any sort of ethical standard in conflict. I think it was an important reality check to have, to confront those fears and doubts and then to move past them.
What exactly caused those doubts though?
While you’re in the region, you have all these competing narratives. So it was kind of a ‘wanting to know what was the answer, and who was right?’ and realizing that there wasn’t always a clear answer and that someone wasn’t necessarily right. It was being confronted with the truths and flaws of both sides of the conflict which really made me doubt whether we can know anything or offer judgment on it.
Was knowing and judgment on something your initial goal?
Not necessarily, but I think we all want the sense that we are moving the ball forward, right? No one wants to think that what he or she is doing is fruitless. We all aspire to be engaged in something that is productive, and so I think everyone who goes to the region, certainly everyone in our trip wanted to think about 1. understanding the situation as it is and 2. what were the paths forward? What were the paths to peace and conflict resolution? I think we are all looking for progress and clarity. I think it’s the moment where we become lost in uncertainty that is the most difficult.
How did you pull through and move through that uncertainty? Or, have you?
I think what’s important is to learn to confront what you don’t know, and to learn to confront uncertainty and to learn to become comfortable in that space. I think for a long time, we are taught that there are right answers and that the path of success in life is to find the right answer, particularly in school, right? It’s like a treasure hunt for the right answer. ‘Give the right answer to the multiple choice question.’ And when we move from abstraction to reality, we often find that there is actually not a right answer. There may be multiple answers or a series of bad answers. And I think it’s learning how to accept that that is ultimately liberating. Even in uncertainty we can look for paths forward. But I think we do so with more humility about the amount of influence we have.
But exactly how did you learn to grow comfortable with that uncertainty? Did anybody help you?
I certainly think the conversation with Daniel helped, discussing that these were frustrations he’s had throughout his career. One of the things the conversation and the trip showed to me was that we are all uncertain together. It is not that I do not have the right answer and somebody else does. None of us can really say that we have the right answer. Once you can accept that you are on the same playing field as everyone else and that everyone else is grappling with these questions, I think that in itself becomes liberating. I think experiencing the trip with the community of friends and with people that we are comfortable being vulnerable with and expressing doubts to is incredibly important.
I know you and Daniel Brunstetter wrote an article about just war and drones. Is that somehow linked with what you learned in OTI?
No, that started before hand. I met Daniel in his just war theory class and through that class we realized that we had a shared interest in this topic and that we ought to write something. Daniel suggested that I participate in OTI. So I think my involvement in OTI grew out of my mentorship with Daniel.
What got you interested in politics and foreign policy? You told me you had family in the military?
Yeah. My father is in the military, so I grew up around those communities. When I was seven I moved to Japan for a few years. I was exposed to the world at a young age and it opened my eyes, so that interest has endured ever since. And in college, I was weighing a series of different professional paths, and became deeply interested in the ethical and legal questions associated with warfare. And that interest was sparked by a children’s fiction book called ‘Enders Game’ by Orson Scott Card that we read in my honors folklore class. That was really the genesis of saying ‘this is actually something I can build my career around.’ Both my academic experiences and my life experiences laid a fertile ground for those seeds to grow.
Returning to home from the OTI trip and processing the experience was difficult for me, with some depression and anxiety about the world in general. What was it like for you returning from the trip?
I had a different experience because I had already graduated. I came back and was immediately absorbed with studying for the LSATs, applying for the Rhodes. There were so many demands on my time that I don’t think I had a chance to process the trip. So I think I just charged forward and the processing happened slowly through a series of conversations with people who went on the trip, people who were curious about the region, friends who had spent time there, traveled there, and every time I get to see the OTI alumni at different events, and whenever I’m at Irvine, or them stopping on their way to DC to the region.
What is the nature of that process of reflecting on the trip? Easy or difficult?
It’s difficult because especially when you are talking to someone who was not on the trip, they want you to shed light on the conflict for them. And I think most of us who went on the trip came back with more questions than we started with. We knew a lot more. But we also knew a lot more about what we didn’t know. And we are much more aware of the uncertainty and the lack of clear answers. So I think trying to communicate with people who haven’t experienced the trip or who haven’t been to the region can be very difficult. In terms of having a chance to reconnect with people who went on the trip, that is always rewarding because there are people who become good friends and there is a shared understanding there. It’s always wonderful to have a chance to re-explore the questions that we were asking ourselves that summer.
You are in Oxford right now and other OTI alumni are all over the world. What do you have in mind or would like to see for an alumni network?
That’s a good question. I hope that an alumni network is a group of interested and thoughtful people that l can continue to learn with. The fact that we have all gone on to different parts of the country and the world makes it difficult for us to make the time and opportunity to reconnect, but I would like an alumni network to be an ongoing conversation.
For what purposes?
One, there’s the personal level, developing citizens of the world and our capacity to think about challenging problems. Two, I think there is the sense that we will never know all we need to know about the conflict and that we will need to learn more from each other. And three, there is also a sense of a call to action. People who have had the privilege to go there and meet with so many phenomenal speakers and share the learning experience together. We have an obligation to continue remaining involved with some of these issues in whatever capacities our unique talents and experiences and life opportunities present us with.
We’re all kind of in a similar boat, graduating and with a lot of uncertainty ahead of us. What words do you have for someone who feels uncertainty in going into the job or academic world? What kind of mindset would be useful?
I think that our educational experiences lead us to think that there is a single path to success, that if we do well in high school and get into a good college, and we do well in college and do a graduate degree, then we get the best job in our field. I think it’s important to realize that when we finish school, there are no more road signs to victory or success. Success is not an objective standard. I think I would encourage young people to reflect deeply on what it is they want in life, what they think is important and to come up with their own definition of success, to ask ‘what does success mean to me?’ and then to think about what steps there are that they should follow to make that a reality. So I think it is personalizing success and using that as a road map rather than following what we think society expects of us.
The second challenge is to realize that there is no single path to our desired destination. There are many different ways to make an impact, to have a meaningful career. And sometimes, the thing is just to get started. Try something. See where it leads you. Maybe it will lead you to something else. Maybe you’ll keep going on that path. Maybe you’ll take a little detour to try something else. But I think if people are deliberative and thoughtful, they will end up doing something exciting and interesting no matter what route they take. I think it is being open to the possibilities but also knowing that you have to define what it means to succeed and not look to any external standards.
How does one win the Rhodes scholarship?
(laughter) You get lucky. There are a few categories you have to fulfill. You have to do very well academically. You have to be engaged with your community and service projects. You have to demonstrate a capacity to be a leader. You have to be a very active person with verve for life, which is typically typified by involvement in sports. There are hundreds and thousands of people who have a constellation of those four activities. What it is that allows some of us to have a scholarship to Oxford often comes down to luck in the interview and selection process.
Maybe not luck. Chance. I don’t believe in luck. That’s a good point. There’s a certain amount of chance and serendipity. I applied once and didn’t win and applied again the next year, and I couldn’t tell you why I won the second time and not the first. I met phenomenal people in the interview process who didn’t win. I don’t know if there is any objective or rational explanation for why some of us were selected and why some of us weren’t. I think you just have to consider it a great blessing if you have that opportunity. But to recognize that there are many many exciting opportunities other than the Rhodes.
How did you know about it and apply for it?
I was in a Campus Honors Program and applied for it my freshman year. And during my initial meeting with one of the CHP councilors, she said ‘wow you’re an athlete and you do quite well academically. Have you considered the Rhodes scholarship?’ Well I had no idea what that was and she told me about it and I remember being completely enamored with the idea. It sounded like only accomplished people win it and I couldn’t imagine being one of them. The idea of having two years at Oxford to make incredible friends and study and travel and to learn more about the world community of engaged young people sounded like an incredible opportunity. So it was in the back of my mind during my time at Irvine. And the summer before you apply, you have to think about getting eight letters of recommendation.
Yeah, eight. That’s probably the most daunting hurdle for the Rhodes scholarship. The letters of rec. It’s certainly a six month endeavor to put your application together. And the interview process could be protracted as well. It’s definitely something people should start thinking about early, and if you want to do it then you should know by your junior year.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I’d like to have my DPhil and my law degree and be working on the law of armed conflict, whether that is for the State Department or the Department of Defense or White House Council or the Judge Advocate General. I want to work on issues that deal with the law and ethics of armed conflict.
Where would you like to see OTI in ten years?
I would like to see OTI as a student group that is entrenched and thriving at all the University of California campuses that looks not just at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also at a variety of conflicts throughout the world. I would like the program to serve as a model of best practices for all the universities throughout the US and around the world. I think there is tension in growing the OTI program to a point where it becomes unsustainable if it gets too large. But I think the idea of OTI – the deliberative approach it takes to conflict, this idea of taking 20 or so college students who have different perspectives on the conflict and taking them to the region and giving them an opportunity to hear from speakers who are engaged on all sides of the issue and have a chance to learn from them, ask tough questions, force them to think about things – is the model of experiential learning which I think can be applied to any number of issues that should be adopted as a central part of university education throughout the world. I think that might be too big of a task for OTI, but I certainly think the OTI model is one that needs to be replicated.
Do you have any words of advice to an undergraduate who is considering joining OTI?
Do it. It’s a phenomenal opportunity to learn, make new friends, to think critically. I don’t see there being any down side. What’s the worst that can happen? You learn from a perspective you haven’t heard before.
Your community can criticize you upon your return.
It would be unfortunate if there were a lot of friction from your community upon your return, but we have an obligation to take opportunities to learn and develop as an individual, and then to return to our communities and use that knowledge and experience to push people, to push them to think more deeply about an issue or to consider it from another side. It’s unfortunate when there are personal costs associated with doing what you think is right, but we do have an obligation to be proactive. And on some level, I think we have to be willing to accept the consequences. I think anyone who is concerned about some people in their community or friend group not liking them upon their return should be comforted by the fact that they’ll have many many new friends who have experienced the same things they have and who value the critical dialogue.
Is there anything else you want to say to anybody who has gone on the trip?
I’m sure they are doing fascinating things. I would love to hear more about them. If they happen to be passing by England or Oxford, they should definitely get in touch.