Mona Sami ’16 is certainly a special member of the College community; not only is she the senior class’s only astrophysics
major, but she also has a fascinating heritage and a deep-seated interest in economics. I first met her last semester as my patient but sassy Econ teaching assisant. This week, I sat down with Sami to learn more about my favorite fiesty Floridian.
Where are you from?
I’m from Boca Raton, Florida.
What was your high school like?
Oh, god. [Laughs.] It was interesting. It was a small private school. Yeah, it was really intense, super competitive. It’s like a New England prep school just placed in South Florida.
Did you spend a lot of time in Miami in high school?
Yeah, we would spend a decent amount of time in Miami. Miami is a cool place to go if you want to do something fun and a little bit ratchet. My friends and I in high school… one of the worst things we probably ever did… do you know what Dayglow is? We had Dayglow in Miami and my friends and I really, really wanted to go but we had no ride. My friend was friends with this 43-year-old club promoter with a lazy eye and she convinced him to drive to Boca, which was like an hour and a half away from where he lived and drive us down to Dayglow and be our ride there. So like, me being the mom of the situation, I get in the car and the guy is like, “Oh, this is a nice house, what does your Dad do?” And I was like, “He’s a sheriff’s deputy.” And he’s like, “I didn’t know local government pays that well,” and I was like, “Yeah. I know basically all the cops in Boca and in Palm Beach County so just thought I’d let you know.” And it was silent the rest of the ride.
What stuff do you do on campus?
Mostly I’ve just done a lot of research and I’ve TA’ed I think every semester actually. The last two semesters I TA’ed Econ 251.
Do you enjoy teaching and tutoring?
Yeah. I worked at a tutoring center in high school and kind of hustled that situation, started my own thing and tutored these kids on my own… and they would just come to me with their homework and I’d just help them with everything. So like I worked at the tutoring center and [the other girl] was getting paid $120 an hour and I was getting paid like $20, and I was like, that’s some bullshit, so I undercut her and said, “Your parents can pay me $60 an hour and I’ll help you,” and it was for the same service. I don’t think my dad has ever been more proud of me in his entire life. He’s very much the businessman of the family.
What do you study here?
When I came to Williams, I knew I wanted to do something with physics and something with econ. I transitioned to astrophysics; one, because space is cool and two, because it’s one fewer lab class. I kind of came into Williams thinking, “Oh, I really want to do science and econ is just gonna be for fun, I find econ interesting, I am just gonna do it for fun.” But through my four years, it’s kind of swapped to where I want to pursue econ, but astro is just for fun at this point.
Is it true you are the only astrophysics major in the senior class?
I am. We had a few others, but they left me behind to pursue other endeavors.
How do you want to pursue econ?
So I was really lucky when I was younger because I got to travel a lot with my family. And one thing that I’ve always been very interested in is poverty and development and seeing how there are so many places in the world that are so much worse off than here. I’ve always wanted to do something – this is gonna sound really self-righteous – to help people and be able to have an impact. So I really want to pursue developmental economics. I’m not really sure if I want to do the policy side or the academic side, but definitely in that realm of poverty economics, development economics, stuff like that.
So you’ve been doing research over the summer for that kind of thing?
So I did a summer of research in astro. It was a great experience, but I just realized it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do and so now I’m doing an econ thesis and I just love it. I’m just so interested in what I’m doing – I’ll be working for eight or nine hours not even realizing where time has gone. For me, it’s just so fun.
Nerd! What is your thesis about?
Very broadly it’s about how oil-producing developing countries react to oil price shocks like how their macro economies react to world price shocks and if that’s at all related to their level of democracy or their institutional stability.
What do you think is your low-key nerdiest attribute?
Being able to solve a Rubik’s cube. Do you want to see? I would say the fastest I’ve ever done it is 1:15 maybe? But if I really worked on it, I could probably get it under 60 seconds, no big deal. I went to math camp in high school. It was at Stanford and it was actually pretty cool. They got the guy from the movie The Pursuit of Happyness – Will Smith actually solved a Rubik’s cube in that movie – and they brought into the math camp the guy who taught Will Smith, and he taught all of us how to do a Rubik’s cube.
Are you planning on going to graduate school for econ?
Eventually. So next year I wanna do a research job to find out if I want to go the academic route or the policy route. Hopefully, get a job in one of those areas and then decide whether I want to go to graduate school or go get a Ph.D… whether I want to invest seven years of my life in getting a Ph.D. [Working for the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank] would definitely be the 15-year plan. Ideally. I think that would be a really cool thing to do. You get to travel a lot, obviously you are working nonstop, but it seems really cool.
Is there a specific region in which you are most interested, like the oil-producing region?
Yeah, so my parents are from the Middle East, from Iran. My dad works there, I’ve traveled there a lot, so I guess I am most familiar with the region. I do find [Iran] really fascinating politically and economically, just because the politics there are so weird. [Politics and economics] are very much intertwined there and there are a lot of interesting things that go along with that.
Do you go back to Iran often?
So we used to go back every year. It’s gotten more difficult now because they have mandatory military service so my brother cannot go back. He has to wait. The rule is that he can go back once my dad turns 65 because then he’s technically the oldest male in the family and has to provide for the family, so he can start going back. If he were to go back now, they wouldn’t let him leave because we’re dual citizens and they have mandatory military service for males. One of my mom’s friends actually had a son who was a doctor here and he went there and he got stuck there and they wouldn’t let him leave.
Do you still have a lot of family in Iran?
Yeah, so my dad is one of nine, [in a] very large family. I guess five of them are here and four of them are there. And my grandparents did live there. But just it’s cool to go there, it’s so different than America, but not in the way that everyone would expect. Like people always ask me, “Do you just walk around and there are like bombs and people shooting people?” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s exactly how it is…” But really it is just like… I mean, one thing I have learned from traveling a lot is that at the root of it, people are all the same. Everyone is the same and people in the Middle East and people here are not as different as you would think. I go there and I talk to my cousins and my cousins’ friends and we have so much in common… we talk about Beyoncé, we talk about Iggy Azalea, they are on the same page as we are a lot more than people would expect us to be.
What is the most surprising similarity that you found? Beyoncé?
Definitely music, movies. You know, they watch, like, Homeland, like all the shows that we watch. They freak out about Instagram filters too. There are a lot of similarities that if you have not been there, [a place] that’s not like a “developed country,” you don’t realize how similar those people are to us until you have really experienced it. It was a really humbling experience to realize that.