Since graduating from Westfield State University in 2012, Michael Brill has been anything but static. For starters, he studied Arabic in Amman, Jordan, earned a master’s in Arab Studies at Georgetown University and is now a doctoral candidate in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.
If you ask him, his successes so far have a lot to do with Westfield State. He truly believes his education paved the way for all those opportunities, in part, because he was able to pursue through studies his interest in modern Iraqi history with an emphasis on the Baʿath period from 1968-2003.
But there was more.
“One of the most important factors was the small class sizes and the opportunity to develop close relationships and friendships with my professors,” he said. “This not only helped in terms of guiding my work at the time, but I had a lot of help when it came to applying to grad schools, studying for the GRE, getting advice for pursuing a career in higher education and letters of recommendation from professors who knew me well.”
And he is ever mindful—and appreciative—of the spirit of generosity of alumni, faculty, staff, trustees, and many others connected with Westfield.
At the time he was an undergraduate, Brill was in a fortuitous position in that the hard work, frugality and generosity of his parents, along with personal savings, made affording his education possible. Add into the mix his being awarded a Westfield State University Foundation Scholarship his senior year and he was able to fully pay for his education without great personal or financial hardship.
He remembers well the interview that was part of the scholarship application process in May 2011. Members of the Foundation board asked him many questions about his education at Westfield and his future aspirations. Brill remains grateful to Ricki Kantrowitz, previous director of the Honors Program and professor of psychology, who encouraged him to apply.
“It was very nice to have been able to apply for a merit-based scholarship and the funds were helpful in terms of saving some money for the future,” said Brill, who earned a bachelor’s degree in history and political science, and was a member of the Honors Program.
Once he earned his degree at Westfield, his ability to study Arabic in Amman was made possible through the Critical Language Scholarship Program, an overseas language and cultural immersion program. The next year he received a fellowship to continue his language studies through the Center for Arabic Study Abroad Program. That program took him to Cairo, Egypt, but he was forced to move to Amman after the July 2013 coup in Egypt during which the military overthrew President Muhammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood government.
Not one to be complacent, Brill continued striving to further his education when he returned home from Jordan. Next stop? Georgetown University’s Arab Studies Program through its Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. After successfully completing that program, he decided on Princeton University where he is studying modern Iraq, including the regime and history of Iraq’s Salafi movement.
When Brill looked forward at his opportunities to study at prestigious institutions, such as Georgetown and Princeton, he looked back at where he had come from academically.
Georgetown and Princeton might not have been possible, Brill maintains, if not for the leadership, dedication and smarts of a number of Westfield State professors.
In particular, political science professors Hugh Jo and David Smailes both set high standards and expectations in their classes, and demonstrated the importance of hard work and commitment to studies. In addition, Brill describes the encouragement of the Honors Program faculty and staff, initially under the guidance of Kantrowitz, plus Professors Vanessa Diana and Glenn Brewster, as “second to none.”
“A real advantage of Westfield is that all of these professors, who could have chosen to pursue careers at research-focused institutions, chose to come to Westfield, where the focus is on teaching and working with students,” Brill said.