Weiss at work

Julian Weiss ’15 helps organizations distribute Syrian aid through mapping

“I’ve been interested in learning about the history of government since elementary school,” says Julian Weiss ’15, a history major and Middle East and Islamic studies minor. “But what really got me interested in politics and the Middle East is my belief that education is essential to building the dialogue and relationships necessary to maintain successful diplomacy.”

This summer, Weiss participated in the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations Washington, D.C., Summer Internships Program. Aimed at providing students with academic and professional training for work in U.S.-Arab relations, the 10-week program brings them together with experts to discuss topics such as gender and sexuality in the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy and defense strategy, energy dynamics, and Palestinian refugees, and to conduct visit sites at locations such as the embassies of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, the U.S. Department of State, the Al-Monitor News Agency, and the National Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

As part of the program, each student also interns 35-40 hours per week at a Near East or Arab world-related organization. Weiss was placed at People Demand Change, LLC (PDC), a nonprofit established in 2013 that helps connect humanitarian aid providers with activists and advocates on the ground in the Middle East and North Africa.

Weiss Map
View a larger image of this map.

PDC had a particular interest in Weiss because of his experience using Global Information Systems (GIS). “I had never thought about mapping before Gettysburg,” Weiss admits. Through his professor’s recommendation, he took two GIS courses at the College, and gained several semesters of experience helping her create interactive maps that translated medieval renderings of the Middle East to modern-day cartography. PDC was so impressed that they brought him on as their Geographic Content Analyst.

An internship that promised to be relevant became even more so during Weiss’s first weeks at PDC, when the extremist militant group, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), captured Mosul and advanced toward Baghdad. Throughout the summer, Weiss created maps that tracked military movements, identified areas controlled by various political and militant groups, and helped shed light upon local political sensitivities. “Since war is at its heart a battle for territory,” he noted, “maps are one of the most successful tools in displaying data related to conflict.”

Syria map
View a larger image of this map.

Ultimately, the data presented in Weiss’s maps helped PDC connect aid distributors with communities in need. “Due to the complexity of the Syrian Conflict, delivering aid is often a logistical nightmare,” he said. “It is very important to know what group controls what villages, and what roads are open to humanitarian aid…. Unfortunately, as aid organizations become larger, they tend to lose the personal connections with recipient communities, and this is why many aid projects fail or do not produce significant results. Because of PDC’s strong connections in the country, the organization has access to detailed information of which even some officials in Congress and the State Department are not aware.”

Throughout the duration of his internship, Weiss went from being a novice on regional geography (during his first weeks, he had an open browser dedicated to basic map searches) to taking a lead role in briefing Foreign Service Officers and Aid Project planners on which roads and villages were the safest to distribute aid. “It was a really awesome experience,” he says. “Part of my job was studying the Syrian Conflict 24/7, so after a few weeks I felt comfortable expressing my opinions to my superiors and in briefings.”

Weiss in conference room

Although Weiss was selected for this position for his GIS experience, he found that his liberal arts training was vital to his success. “The history courses I’ve taken at Gettysburg have taught me how to read critically, how to analyze, and how to write—and how to do all of those things under a deadline,” he noted. “Because I have conducted research, I knew how to find sources to fill in blank areas of a map or information gaps in my colleagues’ expertise. Thanks to my language instruction, I could conduct online searches in Arabic script. And through a class on Gettysburg in History and Memory, I understood about the logistics of war—so when ISIS took tanks from Mosul in June, it made sense that they needed large highways to get back into Syria quickly.”

Weiss’s broad background and critical thinking skills were noticed by his supervisors, too. “Julian was always one of the first among the group to raise his hand and ask insightful questions about these intricate issues,” said Josh Hilbrand, Deputy Director of Student Programs at the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations. “He clearly took the time to do his research, check multiple sources, weigh various options, and draw well thought out conclusions…. From everything we have been told by his supervisors at People Demand Change, he had a hand in contributing to some of their most important projects and his work was a huge asset.”

So what’s next for Weiss? “I’ve never been so excited to graduate,” he said. “I have made some great connections with people in both the public and private sector who have given me sharp insights about going to work in D.C. I’m dead set on working there now.”

In the meantime, he’s eager to bring his experience back to the classroom; he’s already signed up for senior year coursework on national security, Arabic language in the media, American foreign policy, and youth and new media in the Middle East.

To learn more about Weiss’s experiences this summer and to read his political commentary on the region, visit his blog, Delicate ‘Alaqat.


Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Posted: Mon, 8 Sep 2014

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