Nili Safavi, '01


When you first came to Princeton what did you think your major would be?

Before I arrived at Princeton, I thought that I would either major in physics or philosophy, as these were the two classes I had enjoyed most in high school.  But once I arrived at Princeton there were so many interesting classes, it was a little overwhelming.  I found that I was attracted not only to philosophy and physics, but also to economics, politics, and the Woodrow Wilson School.

What made you decide to major in philosophy?

I really enjoyed my philosophy classes and I did very well in them as a result.  As a subject, philosophy is very broad and I really appreciated that in one class I could study ancient Greek philosophy, reading Plato and Aristotle, in another class I could study cognitive philosophy and think about how modern neuroscience intersects with theories of knowledge and perception, and in yet another class I could study politics and different theories of how societies should be governed.

I also loved the rigorous discourse and discussions that we had during philosophy tutorials.  I found that studying philosophy helped me to really think about things deeply and analytically.  I also learned how to construct a persuasive argument and to write clearly and cogently.  These skills have been of tremendous benefit to me over the course of my academic and professional career.

Are there any stories about your experience as a philosophy major at Princeton that you'd like to share?

Most of my philosophy professors at Princeton were amongst the friendliest and most open.  I regularly visited their office hours and found them amenable to having a chat about most anything, not just the material we were studying in class.  From time to time I invited some of them to join me for lunch at my eating club, Terrace.  Once I recall that we struck up quite a rigorous discussion over lunch on a Friday afternoon at Terrace with Professor Thomas Kelly and a group of students, it was so much fun!

Another thing I remember vividly was taking a graduate level ethics and moral philosophy course my senior year, which was taught by Professor Peter Singer.  I had read his books and studied his theories in school and attending class on the first day of the course felt like being in the presence of a celebrity. Here I was, sitting around a jam-packed table in a small classroom with two-dozen other students, the class was oversubscribed and students were practically flowing out the door.  By this point, I thought I was quite the hotshot in philosophy, having studied it for almost 4 years at Princeton and another 2 years before that in high school.  But over half the students who took the class were graduate students, and it was a relatively advanced class taught directly by my a philosopher I was in awe of, so of course, I felt super intimidated and could barely voice my opinion in that first class.  If you know me, this is very untrue to my character.  Thankfully I got over the initial nerves, and I found it to be a really fascinating class, which took my tuition to a whole new level.

What did you do immediately after leaving Princeton?

I went to work for the International Rescue Committee in Bosnia doing postwar reconstruction and development work, on a fellowship from the Class of 1969 Community Service Fund.  I then returned to New York City to work for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office investigating and assisting in the prosecution of white-collar financial crime.  I got to work on some very exciting cases, such as the Dennis Kozlowski / Tyco Case and the Enron case.

What do you do now?

After working in law for about 3 years, I eventually decided that I did not want to be lawyer, and instead got a job as a Human Rights Officer with UN in Geneva, Switzerland.  Thereafter I moved to London to get a Masters Degree in International Peace and Security – a joint degree between the War Studies and Law Department at Kings College London.  After my degree I remained in London and worked for 5 years as a sustainability and social responsibility consultant at DNV, a Norwegian Risk Management Consultancy.  I recently took a job as a Human Rights Specialist at BP, where I am responsible for helping the company to comply with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.  The skills I learned through my philosophy degree have been very helpful to me both in consultancy and particularly at BP, where I need to be able to make persuasive arguments about the link between human rights and business. [This interview was conducted in February 2013]

Final words?

I really enjoyed studying philosophy at Princeton and it has opened many career paths to me.  It’s a great background for law, journalism, film, business, and even medicine (if you take your pre-med requirements).  I would recommend it to anyone who is curious about the world in which we live, wonders why it is the way it is, and who also wants to learn to think analytically and to express themselves persuasively.