Like many Brandeis students, David Benger ’14 was a first-year with diverse interests and no intention of settling on one life path — at least not before exploring where each of his passions might lead. As a first-year he took classes in the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies department and spent the summer learning Yiddish. The year after, he took up a minor in Theater Arts, involving himself in productions on and off campus. He polished his Russian to fluency with a major in Russian Studies, took on a second major in Politics and although he was enjoying his academic experience, a career path had not clicked. 

It was only when Benger had the opportunity to study abroad in the Netherlands through the Brandeis In The Hague program that he became inspired to pursue a career in International Law. 

This month, the next milestone in Benger’s journey toward an international relations career came when he was named a Schwarzman Scholar, part of a brand new program aimed at “preparing a generation of global leaders” and “[expanding] students’ knowledge of China while introducing them to a broader global network,” according to the scholarship’s website. Scholars leave the program with a master’s degree in one of three tracks — either Public Policy, International Affairs or Economics and Business. 

Benger is in the International Relations track and is part of the program’s inaugural cohort. The program was created recently by Stephen A. Schwarzman, a philanthropist who has made sizable contributions to public entities such as the New York Public Library and is the CEO of the Blackstone Group, an equity and investment firm. Thousands of applicants applied, but only 100 were ultimately selected to participate in the first year of the program. 

All their courses will be conducted in English, but only 45 percent of those selected are from the United States. Another 20 percent are from China, and the remaining 35 percent are from other countries. A special building named Schwarzman College has been built on the Tsinghua campus for the scholars, where the students will take classes together and form close social networks. 

“I’m most excited to meet fascinating, interesting people from all over the world. I feel like we’re in an incubator for a full year of just making up ways to make the world a better place,” Benger said in an interview with the Justice. 

In explaining his interest in international relations, Benger recalled the Hague semester that sparked his interest. The program is a one-semester opportunity for a group of Brandeis students to gain a global perspective on international criminal law issues at one of the international centers for human rights. During his semester, he also got a job as the legal intern for the defense team of Jean Pierre Bemba, a politician from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who was indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity. 

He described Prof. Richard Gaskins (LGLS) as well as his other Hague instructors as “professional thinkers before they became lawyers,” since many had advanced degrees in the humanities before getting their law degrees. 

He realized that for him, international law “would never get boring … there would always be questions to explore, so that’s what kind of stoked my interest from the beginning.” 

Benger’s past international experience has been decisively European, but the program’s location in China was particularly important and appealing to him, even though his personal ties to the country are not as strong as many of the other candidates. “Most of the people who apply have some background in China and I don’t. I don’t have any background in Chinese language, I’m not of Chinese descent,” he said.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t hard for him to come up with an answer to the question, “Why China?” “I’ve been thinking about this for a while, the peculiar position China is in,” he said. “If we could, we being people who care about China, international justice and law, could convince China that it could really be in its interest to pursue prosecution against war criminals — that could make a huge difference in the potential future of the [international] court,” he added. 

Benger forged ahead with his application despite his lack of exposure to Chinese culture. He was enthused by the prospect of participating in the program but simultaneously was “not expecting to hear anything back,” he admitted. 

Although Benger could have applied to the program without involving Brandeis, he decided to call on Meredith Monaghan, the director of academic fellowships in Academic Services, who had helped him apply for scholarships in the past. 

Among other application assistance, she arranged a mock interview with a panel of Brandeis professors that included Monaghan, Prof. Daniel Breen (LGLS), Dr. Leigh Swigart (Ethics Center) and Professor Kristen Lucken (IGS). 

The application process was intense. It involved a video, three essays and a short statement. When Benger was declared a semifinalist, he attended a day-long interview process at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City that included a team-building exercise with legos, a group lunch and individual interviews. 

Although the wait for a letter of acceptance is over, the challenges are only beginning. One of the toughest parts of the program for Benger will be the rigor of the academic schedule, which affords only a one-week break for the Chinese New Year. 

Currently, Benger is an Investigative Analyst at the New York County District Attorney’s Office. During his time at Brandeis, he was a highly involved member of the community, serving as president of the Brandeis Players Theater Club and co-captain of the Ice Hockey Club while balancing multiple independent research projects with the support of the Schiff Undergraduate Fellows Program, the Provost’s Undergraduate Research Fund and the Research Circle on Democracy and Pluralism.

 “How do we make people who don’t care … to care and invest money and time and manpower into putting war criminals in jail?” he asked while trying to articulate why he is passionate about International Relations. As a Schwartzman scholar, he hopes to be immersed in a community of peers as interested in these questions as he is. 

Editor’s note: David Benger ’14 was a staff writer for the features section of the Justice from 2010 to 2011.