Examination of Middle East Politics Wins Undergraduate Research Award

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A young woman in eye glasses and a black mask sits in a wheelchair in front of a poster she created about the Taliban.
Delaney Soliday: ‘Being in this program and being so supported by peers and other professors really allowed me to find my stride…’

Growing up in Irwin, Pennsylvania, Delaney Soliday remembers learning about Flight 93. Her small hometown sits roughly 50 miles from Shanksville, where the plane crashed on 9/11.

I heard a lot about that and I wanted to understand it,” she said. “That led to my interest in Middle Eastern politics and it kind of showed me that there is so much more to the region.”

Now a junior in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at George Mason University, Soliday, a global affairs major with a concentration in global governance, has immersed herself in her classes and in-depth research.

Peter Mandaville, a professor of government and politics in the Schar School of Policy and Government, has taught Soliday in courses including Introduction to International Politics and U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East. He has been impressed with her enthusiasm and scholarship.

“She has a genuine passion for learning, and for relating what she is studying to real-world events and policy considerations,” he said. “The questions and contributions she brings to the classroom are incredibly impressive.”

Soliday frequently discussed her research ambitions with Mandaville, and he connected her with faculty whose interests matched her own.

“Professor Mandaville has been amazing in helping me find a community and professors who were supportive of my research ideas,” Soliday said. “He has been really great in helping me take an initial idea and turning it into a plan that actually makes sense.”

Mandaville introduced her to Heba El-Shazli, an assistant professor in the Schar School, who also serves as director of the Undergraduate Research Community (URC). El-Shazli encouraged Soliday to join the semester-long program, which gives students the opportunity to gain hands-on research and analytic skills while contributing to topics of interest and earning class credit.

As part of the program, students work on a project and present it at an annual Undergraduate Research Fair. Soliday’s initial idea proved too broad, but after brainstorming with El-Shazli, her topic came into focus.

The finished product, The Taliban Over Time—A Diachronic Case Study of Governance in the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, examined how today’s Taliban differs from the group that led Afghanistan in the 1990s.

Professor El-Shazli really helped me to organize the idea because my initial idea was too all encompassing,” she said. “I came out with a much stronger project because of that.”

Indeed, Soliday earned first place at the Undergraduate Research Fair for her work.

“The poster and presentation were excellent on all levels: research question, visuals, content, responses to questions, and an overall engaging presentation of your research,” El-Shazli said in a congratulatory email to Soliday.

To say she was surprised is an understatement.

“I was really shocked,” Soliday said. “I was just over the moon. There were so many other incredible projects and I was just blown away by everyone’s creativity.”

Hoping for a career in homeland security or intelligence analysis, Soliday looks forward to her upcoming internship with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where she will serve on the counterterrorism and intelligence team.

“When I am working at the Washington Institute this summer, I will be getting open-source intelligence analysis training,” she said. “That’s something I’m really excited to put toward a future career where I’m able to use those skills potentially in a more classified setting.”

Soliday feels thankful she joined the URC, where she found community and confidence.

“Being in this program and being so supported by peers and other professors really allowed me to find my stride and also recognize that my research interests are not just a weird quirk,” she said. “This will actually get you somewhere, get you a career with the skills you are developing.”