Senior Matt Ellison (SFS’18) meets challenges and surprises in international politics

Matthew Ellison
SFS, Class of 2018, International Politics
Boston, Massachusetts
Language: Spanish
Proseminar: “1968: Europe in Protest and Rebellion” with Professor Anna von der Goltz
On-Campus Activities:
International Relations Club
Delta Phi Epsilon Professional Foreign Service Fraternity
Phi Alpha Theta National History Honor Society
SFS Communications Office (Intern)
Georgetown International Relations Institute (Counselor, Assistant Director)
Non-GU Activities:
Stimson Center (Nuclear Security Research Intern)
Carnegie Mellon (Cybersecurity Fellow)


April 30, 2018 by Margaux Fontaine

“I thought there would be more aspiring diplomats and fewer aspiring investment bankers,” Matt Ellison (SFS’18) says of what surprised him most about Georgetown.

Ellison himself falls into the former category. Drawing from his desire to improve the world, he aims to work in the U.S. Foreign Service as a diplomat.

“The world seems to get more complicated and yet less inspired every day, and I think there’s a lot of work to be done to build a more peaceful, prosperous, and freer world—as well as to navigate America toward playing a more perfect role in the world,” Ellison says. “I hope that I can use what I’ve learned here along the way.”

The senior, who grew up in the Boston area, has certainly learned a lot over the course of his time at Georgetown, both inside and outside of the classroom. He is majoring in International Politics (IPOL) with a concentration in International Security. Additionally, he is the Bunker Undergraduate Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, where he has been researching the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement.

His choice to study IPOL was made on “the last possible day,” but he felt that it would allow him to take the most courses that interested him. Admittedly, however, IPOL is not his ideal course of study.

“My biggest regret at Georgetown was not following through with my dream of declaring my own Defense Against the Dark Arts major,” Ellison says. Don’t let the Harry Potter reference fool you; this is a major he has clearly thought through.

“The DADA major would have focused primarily on understanding life and atrocities under the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, how and why the United States dealt or didn’t deal with them, how both morality and realpolitik have functioned in American diplomatic history, and how diplomats can deal effectively with ‘enemies’ and ‘evil,’” he explains.

He goes on to describe his vision for this major, which would include courses in history, international affairs, psychology, philosophy, and literature. Unfortunately, it never came to fruition, and he decided to stick with a more traditional path.

“Alas, International Politics it was instead,” he concedes.

Studying Holocaust Forensics

Ellison and other students in “Holocaust Forensics: Fieldwork” at a site with a local resident in rural Moldova. (Photo: Paul Rochford)

Besides his second-choice major of IPOL, Ellison is pursuing a certificate in Jewish Civilization, for which his coursework has primarily been the forensic study of the Holocaust. This past spring break, he went on the Holocaust By Bullets Fieldwork trip to Poland and Moldova through the Braman Holocaust Program in the Center for Jewish Civilization at SFS. While in Moldova with Father Patrick Desbois, they spoke with local people who had witnessed the Holocaust. In one case, they were the first people outside the village that the witness had ever spoken to about his experience.

“He led us to the top of a hill where there was a mass grave of Jews who had been killed in the village,” Ellison says. “We prayed at the site. The old man told us that he thought God had kept him alive to be able to tell us this story of what happened to the Jews in his village. That moment will stay with me forever.”

Ellison never went abroad for a formal period of study, but beyond Poland and Moldova, he had the opportunity to travel to Cuba, Morocco, Russia, Spain, and Tanzania over the course of his time at Georgetown.

“I have certainly learned a lot through these experiences and hope to see even more of the world beyond college,” Ellison says.

Learning Across Disciplines

Back on campus, Ellison’s freshman year Proseminar was “1968: Europe in Protest and Rebellion” with Professor Anna von der Goltz. While he did not initially think the subject matter would interest him, he has since found himself coming back to it time and time again. His thesis, for instance, deals with U.S.-German diplomatic and intelligence relationships from 1934 to 1953, and incorporates many of the same historical trends that he was first introduced to in the proseminar.

“Entering SFS as a freshman, I frankly did not think I would be interested in the Sixties in Europe,” Ellison says. “Professor von der Goltz and this course opened my eyes to the fascinating study of European history in the 20th century—especially the postwar connections between West Germany and the United States.”

Ellison stands in front of Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square.

Ellison’s favorite class at Georgetown was “Orthodox Subtexts in Russian Fiction” with Professor Olga Meerson—which also came as a surprise to him.

“Studying in the School of Foreign Service, I would have never thought going into Georgetown that my favorite course would have been in Russian literature,” Ellison says.

He cites this as a testament to the Professor Meerson, who helped him gain a deep appreciation for Fyodor Dostoevsky and the other great Russian authors.

“Every one of Professor Meerson’s classes is a tour de force,” Ellison says. “She manifests deep understanding of history, theology, philosophy, psychology, and linguistics to bring classic literary texts to life for her students.”

Along with Professors von der Goltz and Meerson, he also sites numerous mentors and advisors that he has had over the course of his time at Georgetown, including Professors Patrick Desbois, Dennis McManus, Anna Catherine McKenna, Kathryn Olesko, Barbara Bodine, and Anthony Clark Arend, as well as his ISD fellowship advisor Mark Feierstein.

“Each of [them] took the time to get to know me and … had a significant impact on me and my intellectual development at SFS,” Ellison says. “For them I will always be grateful.”

Embracing Opportunities Outside the Classroom

Outside of class, Ellison has been involved with the International Relations Club and their annual NAIMUN conference. He has been a student worker for the SFS since his freshman year, and has served as a counselor and assistant director for the Georgetown International Relations Institute. He has spent his summers at the Stimson Center and Carnegie Mellon, researching nuclear security and cybersecurity, respectively.

Ellison introduces the panel following the screening of “The Final Year.”

Ellison’s peak moment at Georgetown was this semester, when he helped organize an exclusive screening of “The Final Year,” a new HBO documentary that chronicles the Obama administration’s foreign policy team during their last year in office. Speaking at the event were Ned Price (SFS’05), former spokesman for the National Security Council, Marie Harf, former Senior Advisor to Secretary of State John Kerry for Strategic Communications, and Greg Barker, the film’s director.

Ellison had met Ned Price, an SFS graduate, at an alumni event. He had heard about the film and connected with him in order to organize a screening and the panel that followed. Ellison had the privilege of introducing the panel.

“It was great to see the whole event finally come together thanks to the collaboration between SFS, HBO, GU Politics, and the former White House officials who participated,” Ellison said. “‘The Final Year’ is must-see for anyone who wants to understand how Obama and his closest advisors thought about foreign policy, so it was a timely and relevant, if not nostalgic, film to share with the SFS community.”

Aside from organizing high profile events, Ellison has also cherished the simpler moments. His favorite way to break the Georgetown bubble is walking down the Potomac river to the Lincoln Memorial.

“Whether there are noisy tourists with selfie sticks or there’s just solemn quiet, it certainly pops the Georgetown bubble either way,” Ellison says.

When asked what he would tell his freshman self, Ellison has a few pieces of advice.

“Take your work seriously but don’t take yourself seriously,” he says. “Find out who the best teachers are and take the professor not the course title or description. Embrace core requirements—they have been around much longer than you have and are much wiser than you are. Read the great books and authors in whatever field you are studying even—and especially—if they aren’t assigned. Orient yourself towards what you don’t yet know rather than what you do know (or think you do). Think carefully about what you value and what you worship: ‘There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.’”