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Schwarzman Scholar Reflects on Studying History at UNC

As a traveler and an intellectual, Sam Zahn ’22 is always on the move. After graduating from UNC with a double major in history and political science on May 9, he headed to southern Utah for a real-life adventure in the wilderness. Having fun might have been on the agenda, but it wasn’t the point: the trip was organized by the Robertson Scholarship Leadership Program for its recipients to push themselves and each other in an environment far beyond the classroom. Donning a winter jacket in May was not Zahn’s initial plan for celebrating graduation. “Initially, I was really skeptical,” he comments. “We went out there for a week and I am not a backpacker.” When the sun set on the first night, he changed his mind. “The stars,” he recalls, “were unbelievable. There were stars you could see that I didn’t know existed. You could see the sky moving.” For Zahn the trip ended up being well worth the hardship. “It really gave me a very high opinion of outdoor education. The clarity of mind it can afford is really something unique.” Zahn will take these experiences with him as he charters more unfamiliar territory in China this upcoming year. Having recently been named a Schwarzman Scholar, he joins a handful of UNC students who have received the prestigious scholarship, which funds a master’s degree in global affairs at Beijing’s Tsinghua University.

The desire to embrace challenge runs through Zahn’s academic career at UNC. A Pennsylvania native, he wound up at Carolina with the support of the Robertson scholarship and added to that a Truman scholarship, awarded to the nation’s top public service scholars, just two years later. From the start, he found himself attracted to classes which dealt with issues affecting people’s everyday lives, leading him to major in political science. However, after completing most of the requirements by the end of his sophomore Fall, Zahn was left wanting more. “I appreciated political science and loved my professors but didn’t feel particularly pushed by the courses. I wasn’t improving much as a writer, and didn’t feel like I was reading the substantial, weighty books I expected in college.”

Freshman spring at Carolina, Zahn had enrolled in Prof. Matt Andrews’s history course on “Race, Basketball, and the American Dream.” “I enjoyed it immensely. It opened my eyes to how much I can take from just one course. Ultimately, it was the impetus for my decision to add history as a second major. Once I decided to steep myself into history, there was no looking back. I took four history courses the next semester, including an independent study with Duke’s Prof. Malachi Cohen, in which I wrote an intellectual biography of Judah Magnes, the great American Jewish pacifist and non-conformer.” Recalling the independent study as “one of the most intimidating academic experiences of [his] life,” Zahn nevertheless found himself hooked. Enrollment in Prof. Molly Worthen’s course on American intellectual history that same semester sealed the deal: At the end of sophomore year, Zahn declared history as his second major.

Zahn credits history courses with getting him to think critically, and historically, about his surroundings. His enthusiasm could be infectious, as one of his instructors, Prof. Eren Tasar, noted: “I could only think of Sam as a colleague, not a student. He took our class discussions into directions I never could have anticipated, and his research paper on the Israeli Supreme Court is one of the best I have read in my career. I consider myself lucky and privileged that he chose to take one of my courses.”

Zahn’s gift for historical inquiry was hardly confined to the classroom. Two incidents that rocked campus in 2019 are a case in point. In April 2019, antisemitic flyers were found posted at Davis Library. Around the same time, a rapper used antisemitic lyrics while performing at a conference on campus. These incidents led Zahn to join forces with a doctoral candidate in German history, Max Lazar, to develop a course called “Confronting Antisemitism.” The course was organized around a series of guest lectures delivered from a variety of disciplines. It proved to be a great success, not least because it helped contextualize modern antisemitism within the context of the broader phenomenon of racism.

More history courses only deepened Zahn’s interest. As COVID hit the Spring of his sophomore year, Zahn opted to enroll in a History 398 research seminar taught virtually by Prof. Fitz Brundage on monuments, memory, and commemoration. Zahn’s research paper focused on the history of Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, commemorating assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzah Rabin. That summer, before his study abroad in Jerusalem, Zahn found himself living and interning in Tel Aviv, only five minutes away from the monument to Rabin. “I lived right next to his plaza and walked by it every day. I kept thinking: ‘No one pays attention to this place, yet it’s so rich with historical memory.’” Zahn recalls the power of this “profound experience of studying something and having it change how you interact with your everyday world, of delving into research that changes the way you carry yourself in the world.”

Zahn credits history as one of the outstanding features of his Carolina experience. “When I looked back at my transcript to see what courses were worth taking, and looked back at courses that profoundly altered my worldview, history classes were at the top of the list. I really wish I would’ve taken more of those. History provided a great community.” When asked about his long-term plans, Zahn could only say that he wasn’t sure: He was headed to the American Jewish Committee in Washington for the summer, and had a flight to catch to Abu Dhabi at the end of August.




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The History Department is a lively center for historical education and research. Although we are deeply committed to our mission as a public institution, our “margin of excellence” depends on generous private donations. At the present time, the department is particularly eager to improve the funding and fellowships for graduate students.

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