Shelly Culbertson

Photo of Shelly Culbertson
Senior Policy Researcher
Pittsburgh Office


M.P.A. in international relations and development studies, Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs, Princeton University; B.Phil. in political science and philosophy, University of Pittsburgh; B.S. in mathematics, University of Pittsburgh

Media Resources

This researcher is available for interviews.

To arrange an interview, contact the RAND Office of Media Relations at (310) 451-6913, or email

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Shelly Culbertson is a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. Her research focus includes refugees, education, workforce development, international development, and the Middle East.

She is currently leading a portfolio of studies about refugees and displacement in the Middle East, with emphasis on education, jobs, and humanitarian assistance models. She is also conducting a multi-year evaluation of the Appalachia Partnership Initiative's investments in STEM education and workforce development. She co-led a multi-year effort to advise the Ministry of Education of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq on improving its K-12 and vocational education systems. She coordinated RAND's project to design programs for the Qatar National Research Fund, which has supported over $800 million in research grants.

Prior to RAND, she worked at the U.S. State Department on the Turkey Desk, and at LMI Government Consulting. She has written OpEds for Newsweek, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs Online,, FoxNews, U.S. News and World Report, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and other news outlets.

Culbertson received a B.S. in mathematics and political science from the University of Pittsburgh and a master's degree from the Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. She is the author of The Fires of Spring: A Post Arab Spring Journey Through the Turbulent New Middle East (St. Martin's Press, 2016). She is on the boards of the University of Pittsburgh's Honors College and Global Outreach Doctors.

Recent Projects

  • Improving Quality and Access to Education in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq
  • A Three Country Study of Syrian Refugee Education
  • Providing Services to Refugees in Urban Areas
  • Stabilization and Civilian Displacement after the Battle for Mosul
  • An Evaluation of the Appalachian Partnership Initiative's Investments in Education and Workforce Development

Selected Publications

Shelly Culbertson and Linda Robinson, Making Victory Count: Addressing Stabilization Challenges in Mosul and Beyond, RAND (RR-2076), 2017 (forthcoming)

Shelly Culbertson, Tom Ling, Marie-Louise Henham, Jennie Corbett, Rita Karam, Paulina Pankowska, Catherine Saunders, Jacopo Bellasio, Ben Baruch, Evaluation of Emergency Education Response for Syrian Refugee Children and Host Communities in Jordan, UNICEF, 2016

Georges Vernez, Shelly Culbertson, Louay Constant, Rita Karam, Initiatives to Improve Quality of Education in the Kurdistan Region - Iraq, RAND (RR-960-KRG), 2016

Shelly Culbertson, Olga Oliker, Ben Baruch, Ilana Blum, Rethinking Coordination of Services to Refugees in Urban Areas: Jordan and Lebanon, RAND (RR-1485-DOS), 2016

Shelly Culbertson, Louay Constant, Education of Syrian Refugee Children: Managing the Crisis in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, RAND Corporation (RR-859), 2015

Louay Constant, Shelly Culbertson, Cathleen Stasz, Georges Vernez, Improving Technical Vocational Education and Training in the Kurdistan Region-Iraq, RAND Corporation (RR-277), 2014

Shelly Culbertson, Michael Mattock, Bruce Nardulli, Abdulrazaq Al-Kuwari, Gary Cecchine, John Friel, Richard Darilek, Launching the Qatar National Research Fund, RAND (TR-722-QF), 2012

Honors & Awards

  • 2008 Silver Medal, Education and ISE

Recent Media Appearances

Interviews:; BBC World News; Business Insider; Exame; Global Dispatches Podcast; Here and There, Santa Fe Public Radio; KFSR Dave Marash radio show; Rudy Maxa's World with the Careys; Voice of America; WAMC Roundtable; World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh; 51 Percent Online - WAMC/Northeast Public Radio

Commentary: CNN; EduTech Magazine; Newsweek; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; U.S. News & World Report


  • Teacher Darcy McKinnon teaches math to her seventh grade class at Samuel J. Green Charter School in New Orleans, Louisiana, February 22, 2006

    Louisiana's Education System Is Evolving: Here's What Parents Need to Know

    Louisiana has taken big steps to improve its education policies and the education of the state's children, from birth to grade 12. Parents can help their children benefit from the reforms by being informed about the changes and knowing how to take advantage of new resources.

    Sep 12, 2018 The Advocate

  • Workers repair a bridge in Mosul, Iraq, January 28, 2018

    If We Don't Get the Peace Right, Iraq Will Slide Back into the Morass

    Actions taken now by the United States, the Iraqi government, and private parties could determine the war-torn country's future. The message the Sunnis receive in these next six months will determine whether Iraq is on the path to stability.

    Feb 12, 2018 Newsweek

  • A Rohingya refugee looks at the moon with a child in tow at Balukhali refugee camp, Bangladesh, December 3, 2017

    How the U.S. Can Help Resolve the Rohingya Crisis

    By accepting responsibility for reintegrating the Rohingya refugees, Myanmar has provided an opening to prevent an epic tragedy. Will the United States and the international community take advantage of it?

    Jan 5, 2018 Foreign Affairs

  • A woman inspects a manufacturing plant

    Keeping Americans on the Job in a Changing Economy

    Despite calls to bring back U.S. coal mines and factories, the real issue isn't a lack of family-sustaining jobs, it's a mismatch between workers and available jobs.

    Oct 20, 2017 U.S. News & World Report

  • A Middle Eastern woman driving

    Female Drivers Can Put Saudis on Road to Enhanced Growth

    Allowing women to get behind the wheel will likely lead to significant long-term changes in Saudi Arabia's economy and the participation of women in the labor force.

    Sep 29, 2017 The Hill

  • Migrants at the Anti-Illegal Immigration Authority in Tripoli, Libya, September 10, 2017

    Addressing Europe's Migrant Crisis Takes More Than Stopping the Boats from Libya

    Treating migration from Libya as a border security issue has reduced migration across the Mediterranean. But efforts to keep migrants in Libya are fraught with risks, exacerbate a massive human rights problem, and do not address Libya's long-term economic and political stabilization.

    Sep 25, 2017 Foreign Policy Concepts

  • A view of the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, where nearly 80,000 Syrian refugees were living in March 2017

    The Post–Arab Spring Experience: Q&A with Shelly Culbertson

    It's too early to say whether the Arab Spring will turn out to be a success or not. The Arab Spring was about people deciding what they did not want and rising up against it, but they hadn't worked out what they did want. Many of them still have hope.

    Aug 23, 2017

  • People walk in front of the remains of the University of Mosul, which was burned and destroyed during a battle with Islamic State militants, in Mosul, Iraq, April 10, 2017.

    Moving Beyond Mosul

    The Islamic State group has been defeated in Mosul. But this military routing isn't enough to ensure lasting stability, either in Mosul or in Iraq more broadly. What comes next will require careful planning, diplomacy, implementation, and coordination.

    Jul 18, 2017 U.S. News & World Report

  • Children pose after registering at a school and receiving new backpacks in Mosul, Iraq, January 23, 2017

    The Urgent Need for an Education Plan in Mosul

    In addition to restoring Mosul's damaged infrastructure, efforts to stabilize the city must include a plan to rebuild education. Students need to make up years of missed K-12 and university education, and ISIS indoctrination needs to be undone.

    Mar 27, 2017 Fox News Channel

  • Displaced people who fled ISIS arrive at a military checkpoint before being transported to camps in eastern Mosul, Iraq, January 25, 2017

    Stabilizing Mosul After the Battle Against ISIS

    U.S.-backed Iraqi forces have retaken the east bank of Mosul and are planning to take the west soon. The military operations that oust ISIS are crucial to the city's liberation but failing to get the civilian response right risks a widening civil war.

    Feb 9, 2017 Newsweek

  • Officials count the ballots after the polls are closed in Cairo, Egypt, June 17, 2012

    It's Too Soon to Write Off the Arab Spring as a Failure

    Pessimistically declaring the Arab Spring a failure in 2016 would be as naive as optimistically declaring it a success in 2011. Something comes next—but what?

    Jun 15, 2016 Newsweek

  • Women cleaning a compound housing Syrian refugees in Sidon, Lebanon, February 3, 2016

    A Different Kind of Refugee Crisis

    In Jordan and Lebanon, middle-income countries with robust public sectors where a significant Syrian population may be present for years to come, solutions should be more about supporting the expansion of existing national public services, rather than creating new, internationally run parallel services.

    May 16, 2016 U.S. News & World Report

  • Members of the Tunisian parliament wave flags after approving the country's new constitution in Tunis, January 26, 2014

    Tunisia Is an Arab Spring Success Story

    Tunisia has not unraveled into civil war like Syria or Libya. It has not undergone a counter-revolution that returned it to the autocracy of its pre-revolution days, like Egypt has. Tunisia is fragile, but its success is vital to the long-term stability and societal health of the Middle East.

    Apr 21, 2016 Observer

  • A Syrian refugee teacher distributes books to her refugee students in the Karapurcek district of Ankara, Turkey

    Solutions for Educating Young Syrian Refugees

    Approximately 1.5 million Syrian refugees are school-age children. They face a slew of struggles, not the least of which is the lack of education that they need to move forward in life. What can be done to improve the access to and quality of refugee education?

    Apr 21, 2016 Georgetown Journal of International Affairs

  • Syrian refugee children who crossed into Jordanian territory with their families, January 14, 2016

    Battered by War, Syrian Refugee Kids Need to Be Taught

    More than 700,000 Syrian refugee children are not receiving formal education. Host countries are struggling to create enough spaces to accommodate them in schools, and there are no formal programs to teach children who have missed years of instruction.

    Jan 15, 2016 Newsweek

  • Syrian refugees walk towards a crossing point at Greece's border with Macedonia, September 8, 2015

    Syrian Refugees: All You Need to Know

    The world can only absorb so many millions of refugees. The civil war in Syria demands a political solution facilitated by international leadership that will bring stability and enable refugees to return to home.

    Sep 17, 2015 Newsweek

  • Syrian refugee students raise their hands as they attend class in a UNICEF school at the Al Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan, March 11, 2015

    Help Syria Avoid a 'Lost Generation'

    Young Syrian refugees are brimming with potential, but lack the educational and livelihood pathways through which to channel their energy and aspirations. As the international community looks for ways to end the violence in the region, it must not overlook the plight or the potential of these children.

    Jul 17, 2015 U.S. News & World Report

  • Girls attend a class at the Bab Al-Salam refugee camp in Azaz, near the Syrian-Turkish border, November 19, 2014

    Syria's Simmering Crisis

    At least half of Syrian refugee children aren't in school. Those who are face risks to the quality of education they receive, a risk they share with host-country children. But by making long-term investments, the international community can help ensure education isn't another casualty of the war.

    Jan 21, 2015 CNN

  • Two Indian college students outdoors

    Building a Sound Technical and Vocational Education and Training System

    Technical and vocational education and training in India has expanded significantly over the past two decades. But quality and relevance remain significant issues. What may be learned from other countries' experiences?

    Dec 31, 2014 EduTech Magazine

  • boys exiting a school bus

    America's Great Yellow School Buses

    One of the things taken for granted in the United States is the vast network of school buses—about 26 million children ride 480,000 buses every day. But in other parts of the world, getting millions of children to and from the right school, on time, safely, and for a reasonable cost is a significant challenge.

    Sep 9, 2013 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

  • Sulaimania city center, Iraq, December 31, 2012

    Signs of New Life in Northern Iraq

    For a region that has seen decades of strife, Kurdistan is emerging as “the other Iraq,” a place where progress is marked by the opening of new shopping malls and the pouring of concrete at countless construction sites.

    Aug 9, 2013 U.S. News & World Report

  • Carnegie Mellon Qatar

    The Middle East's Science Revolution?

    Even as conflict rages, a wave of research and innovation in Arabian Gulf countries is bringing with it significant investment in science and research infrastructure — and even U.S.-style universities, writes Shelly Culbertson.

    Jun 27, 2013 CNN

  • a couple salsa dancing

    Putting the Spring in the Arab Spring

    Qatar has a salsa scene. Dubai hosted the big international Fujairah Latin Festival. The Oman Salsa Festival took place in March. Jordan and Cairo both have a salsa scene. What makes this so conversation-worthy is that it is indicative of a growing cultural openness in parts of the Middle East.

    Jun 17, 2013 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette