Middle Eastern Studies in International Nonprofits (feat. Elida Jbeili)
Alumni Aloud Episode 34
Elida Jbeili earned her Masters in Middle Eastern Studies from the Graduate Center. She is the North American Director of Communications and Media at Lebanese American University.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Elida talks about the various benefits of working in a nonprofit and how her career has developed as she’s moved between different organizations.
Listen to the episode below, download it, or stream it in Apple Podcasts (or your preferred podcast player).
VOICE-OVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode we talk with a GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
ABBY TURNER, HOST: I’m Abby Turner, a PhD Candidate in Educational Psychology at The Graduate Center. I work in the Office of Career Planning and Professional Development, and I interviewed Elida, who earned her Master’s in Middle Eastern Studies. She currently works at Lebanese American University as Director of Communications and Media for North America. Today in the office I have Elida Jbeili, who is Director of Communications and Media at Lebanese American University in New York. She’s going to walk us through her career journey from actually the time she was doing undergrad at City College. She was in the non-profit sector, she also did a Master’s in Middle Eastern Studies here at The Graduate Center, and she’ll tell us how she ended up at LAU. So hi Elida!
ELIDA JBEILI, GUEST: Hi Abigail, thank you for having me!
TURNER: Sure, sure. So I tried to give a brief overview but why don’t you walk us through…why don’t you start with City College, I feel like that’s where your good professional experience starts.
JBEILI: Sure. So I was really interested in international relations and so I chose international studies at the City College of New York. And I was doing that while I was working full time, doing it in the evenings but then the last year I really wanted to focus on making sure that I shifted to a career in the nonprofit world. And so I started doing some internships while I was also working and balancing my school schedule. And then I got a really good opportunity through the study abroad office there to do an internship in Morocco with Amnesty International, which was a fantastic experience. It really opened up my eyes and gave me that international experience that I really needed and after that I volunteered and did some other things in nonprofits just to have it on my resume so that really complimented my educational background. And then I got the opportunity to work at a UNICEF here in New York. I did internal communications there and it worked well because I really liked storytelling and I come from a theatre background and so for me that was really something that I liked.
I mean I believed in the mission of UNICEF and from there I transitioned into a nonprofit at the UN, an international non-profit called Religions for Peace and I worked with youth there doing out program developments, doing some development work, as well as communications. And from there, I was there for 5 years, I felt that I needed to move up a little bit in my career and a lot of times what that means is you have to go back to school to get another degree, an advanced degree or move on to another organization that you have more of an upward mobility. And so I started here at The Graduate Center for almost 3 years, 5 semesters, when I got my Master’s in Middle Eastern Studies and right after that I started applying for other jobs and I was lucky to get the job that I currently have, for the last 2 years which is Lebanese American University (LAU) here in New York.
TURNER: Yeah. Can you tell us a little bit about the position that you currently hold? Like what’s a day in the life like for a Director of Communications and Media?
JBEILI: Yeah it’s definitely, it never gets boring. You always have a lot of different things that you do. So I basically direct the communication strategy for North America for LAU. The North American audience. What that means is I get to do… I create a lot of content when it comes to print publications, like a newsletter that we do, a quarterly newsletter, for North America. I also contribute to the university-wide magazine that we have, it’s called LAU magazine. Also write articles for the web. I also do social media. We also do like design work you know, bit of editing of video, a videographer and photographer. So it’s one of those jobs where you constantly up on your toes running around. Not a single day is ever the same, so you know you don’t get bored. So I really like that and I really appreciate the job that I have.
TURNER: And so how did the program here at The Graduate Center, the Masters in Middle Eastern Studies, how did that prepare you for this position?
JBEILI: Yeah so I think a few things is you know my personal background. I’m Lebanese originally, ethnically, so I do speak the language. But I grew up in Sweden and so in Sweden, I went through as a refugee because that was the Lebanese Civil War. And so I was always sort of “othered.” I was always thought I didn’t belong and there’s always sort of this feeling of displacement that occurred. And so when I moved to the United States in 2003, it was post-9/11 so again that narrative, the dominant narrative in the media and a lot of discourse was sort of stereotyping people from Muslim majority countries.
And I always felt that I didn’t have the sort of tools to really dissect that and understand how I could contribute to a more positive image, you know how I could be part of a paradigm shift when it comes to that. Because it had real implications… a lot of this discourse had you know policy and practical implications for a lot of people. For me myself on the individual level, but also on the community level. And so I’ve always been interested in the Middle East, North Africa, my own personal time. So when I started thinking about what I really want to study, what I really wanted to pursue, I thought that I wanted to educate myself to become a better person for myself in something that I was really interested in and fascinated in learning about. And I thought at the same time that would help me become a better worker.
And so my experience here at The Graduate Center was really formative in the fact that it taught me a deep understanding of the historical context of a lot of this narrative. It taught me how to be better at navigating that and so that was my primary reason why I did it. The fact that I ended up working at a Lebanese university was really kind of lucky. But I think I would have been the most happy applying to jobs that had some sort of that inter-cultural element to it, some sort of a social justice element because that’s always been something that I’ve cared about deeply and want to work on. So yeah that’s basically…
TURNER: And what kind of skills did you get during your program that you’re using right now?
JBEILI: So a lot of the skills was you know like through taking these classes- anthropology, social sciences classes- help you become a better writer. You know it helps you become a better reader. Being able to really have a critical thinking skills, analytical skills, that you get a lot of those in life. And if I feel in the graduate school it immerses you into this and you know when you first start it’s very scary because a lot of you know big words and a lot of people you’re supposed to know about that you don’t and you feel like maybe you’re not the smartest person in the room. But what that does do to you is it does elevate you. After a period of time if you don’t give up, it does elevate you to a higher level of intellectual thinking. And so once you get to that level it’s very high to go back. So I think that’s really the treasure that I have from The Graduate Center and also being able to…
The people that I was reading about these like prominent figures in sociology, anthropology and history were also doing panel discussions here and they were holding talks. And so seeing them as like real people was really great. I had some great cultural events here that I still go to. So that was really good. The career center is really good here as well to help people with you know resume writing and getting advice. I would love to come back! I never want to stop studying so I still take leadership classes here and there but nothing formally.
TURNER: Great, cool! So most of your professional experience is in the nonprofit world. Do you think you could give students some advice on you know why they might want to go into the nonprofit world? What are some benefits, what are some con’s? Give us some insight into that.
JBEILI: Absolutely sure. I think there’s definitely positives and negatives about going into the nonprofit world. I think the positives would be that you tend to do a lot of things that you wouldn’t do in a corporate world because it’s so specialized. So in the nonprofit world you are expected to do a lot of things.
TURNER: Where a lot of hats, you were saying.
JBEILI: Yeah, I wear a lot of hats. And you gain a lot of skills, hard skills, that way. For example in my own personal experience, I was doing communication and program development within the same position. And so that helped me navigate away from doing program to justify doing communications because I did have, partially, that experience already. So I think that was a really good thing. It’s also a good choice for you if you do want… if you really care intensely about certain issues. If you care about social justice, if you care about in your own small way contributing to the world, I think that’s a really good choice for you. If you care about wanting to be in a more multicultural sort of office environment because a lot of people are drawn to that as well. There’s a lot of different reasons. And the negative, which is sometimes good, the benefits, the salary. You’re not going to profit a lot from a nonprofit.
But they do have good usually like good health care package. They do have a lot more comp time, you know compensation time, off if you’re working extra hours which happens a lot in the nonprofit world. Like you will have an event you have to work in the evening or weekends sometimes because we don’t have a lot of bodies to cover certain tasks. So you do have those little sort of cushioning things. But really the bad part is the fact that a lot of nonprofits might not be managed well. They’re less likely to be inclined to innovative ideas as they are like in the tech world for example. They’re more likely to give you like flex hours or work remotely whereas in the nonprofit world they’re much more rigid when it comes to that. Much more bureaucratic. So that doesn’t I think bode well for this type of society that we are heading towards. And also the fact that they don’t compensate the work as well when it comes to financially.
TURNER: Not as competitive.
JBEILI: Not as competitive. So you end up you know having a graduate degree and still making a low income. And what ends up happening is that a lot of people will then decide to move on, especially if you live in a very costly city like New York. It’s very a expensive city, it’s not realistic for you to stay here and work really long hours. You think it’s a good cause but then you don’t really see any benefits. I mean this is like overall more of a millennial question right. A lot of us come out with a lot of student debt, a lot more than previous generations, and then you get paid really low. And so it really sort of gets to you and you’re trying to be a good moral person and it’s like, “what am I supposed to do, go work for greedy bank?” But what that means is that there is that sort of revolving door that ends up happening.
TURNER: High turnover.
JBEILI: Yes so you end up… in a lot of nonprofits the entry level jobs are very young people fresh out of college and then all the senior positions are in their seventies or eighties. And so everything in the middle is very sparse because what ends up happening are those people end up going to the corporate world or going and getting a Master’s degree which is was what I did. You know make some money and then they come back in their golden years when they’re you know retiring and so forth. So there is that problem in the nonprofit world where there is a huge age gap that we have. So of course like any other field there’s pros and cons but at the end of the day it depends on what you value more in the moment and then in the long term. So for me I chose the nonprofit world being very idealistic, not thinking a lot about making a lot of money. But then sort of did really realize that I wanted to prioritize wanting to do something for the betterment of the world. It’s naive maybe, but at the end of the day you know I thought that I did the right choice.
TURNER: Well I think a lot of our Graduate Center students are going to feel you on this line. We tend to be a university who values you know social justice issues. So I’m wondering, for those students who know that the nonprofit sector is for them and they want to be involved in a mission, what kinds of things should students whether PhD or Master’s degree students… What kinds of thing should they be doing in graduate school to prepare for that kind of work place or that field?
JBEILI: I definitely think they should volunteer at a lot of non-profits just to get an idea or sense of if this is even something that they want to do. Because a lot of the skills that you learn at The Graduate Center and PhD programs here could be translated in a lot of different fields, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the nonprofit world. So they have to I think dip their toes a little bit in the water and volunteer or intern if they can. A lot of people say informational sort of meetings, you know meeting up with people for coffee. And I don’t think that that’s a bad idea. If somebody emailed me who was you know young or in schools or struggling and haven’t really figured things out, I would love to assist and mentor them. Because we need mentors, all of us.
Something that would be good as well, I think they should… don’t wait until you’re just about to graduate to look for a job because it takes a long time. Because you don’t want to be in a position where you’re so desperate you’ll take anything right. So you spend all these years working really hard and just being anxious and stressed and all of this. You want to land in a place that you will like, even if it’s for the short term. At the end of the day, you’re spending most of your waking hours in this environment. So I would suggest starting the year before because most people it does take between 6 to 8 months to even get a position. And if you want to position that you really like, it takes at least a year. So get ahead of the curve so you have a few options.
TURNER: Visit our office too!
JBEILI: *laughs* Yeah for sure, as much as possible.
TURNER: Yeah. So you had experience in different kinds of nonprofits. You mentioned UNICEF, you’ve mentioned the Religions for Peace program, is that what it’s called?
JBEILI: Religions for Peace, yeah.
TURNER: Where you worked like as a youth program manager. And you know now you’re at a academic center for the university in New York. So maybe you can give us some advice about when do you know it’s time to advance in your career? And how do you handle that when you’re ready to you know leave a place that maybe you’ve grown out of or maybe you found something more attractive to you? Is that something you’ve had to figure out.
JBEILI: Yeah absolutely. I think any place you end up, it does take about 2 years I would say to get really good at it.; get comfortable with it, know the ins and outs of it, it takes 2 years. After that I don’t think you should feel bad about shopping around and you know seeing if there’s other opportunities for you where you can perhaps do something that you like even more. There’s no limit anymore in the world that we live in right now. We’re supposed to have a few different jobs and that’s usually not seen as a bad thing to be able to switch positions and sometimes even switching completely to complete different fields. So I think you will know when you’re ready and a lot of time what that means is you don’t feel challenged anymore, you don’t feel creative, you feel stuck and you’re just doing the job to pay your rent. So that’s not a good feeling. You want to be in a place where you value the work that you do but you also feel valued. So yeah when that happens just start looking for something else and don’t feel bad about that you know.
TURNER: And could these different… I imagine you know corporate jobs and non-profits have different cultures like work environment cultures. And so you also have to consider the people you’re working with. Would you say they vary a lot?
JBEILI: Yeah I think that’s something that I probably should have mentioned before in the pros. I haven’t worked obviously in the corporate world so I can’t speak to it but what I do hear is that it’s much more dog-eat-dog, cut-throat sort of environment. Because it’s so profit driven, it’s so numbers, statistics. It’s much easier for you to lose your job, you’re very sort of dispensable. At least from the outside looking in that’s what it seems and that’s what I’ve heard from friends who are in the for-profit world. In the nonprofit world the people there are drawn to that sort of job do have that mentality somewhere along the way they decided that they… bouncing against the fact that it probably won’t be making millions of dollars, that they want to do something good. So you have those types of people attracted to this type of field.
Usually people who care about the world or causes or issues and that does translate into their personality is the type of people. So you do tend to maybe… depending on the hierarchy of course and the structure because I’ve worked in different places. But if the leadership values a collaborative environment it is more low key in that sense. It is safer in a way when it comes to your job security, which we really should value more. Especially with the erosion of unions and things like that. We need to value the fact that if you’re having a bad day or a bad week, which everybody has to go through, that you’re not going to get let go of. That they value you as a human being.
TURNER: Wow, yeah that’s great to hear. So in your organization now do most people at the senior level, director level, today hold advanced degrees? Is it important to go get your Master’s or maybe a PhD for this field?
JBEILI: Absolutely. In the nonprofit world and in higher education when it comes to degrees, at least a very elitist place, it’s one of the must requirements. Any sort of senior position you have to have at least a Master’s degree, for a a director position it is a PhD. So that is one of the fields that PhD candidates here obviously could be attracted to because you’re one of the few people that apply.
TURNER: Yeah, totally, you’re in demand yeah. And as part of the Master’s in Middle Eastern Studies program, you have to have a language component. Can you tell me a little bit about that? And you mentioned that kind of led to your LAU exposure?
JBEILI: Sure. So one of the requirements to graduate from the Master’s program here at The Graduate Center from the Middle Eastern Studies program is to have a language skill. Because the idea was that you would be working possibly in an international or diplomatic setting or any sort of place that had that cultural dimension to it and therefore you would need the language skills because it’s an area studies program. And for me I am originally Lebanese but I grew up in Sweden which means that I speak the language fluently but I read as a first grader. And for me to graduate I needed to brush up on my Arabic language skills. And one of the places that The Graduate Center collaborates with is Lebanese American University for their Arabic language classes. So I was actually taking two summers of Arabic at LAU two years before I even found out about the position and started working there. So my first introduction to LAU was as a student.
TURNER: And how did you ultimately find out about this?
JBEILI: Idealist. Looking online.
TURNER: Really? Ok.
JBEILI: I know that statistics are it is all about connection and networking and 80 percent of people that land jobs it’s through someone that they know.
TURNER: The other 20 percent? *laughs*
JBEILI: I’ve never gotten a job through someone that I know. Because what ends up happening is that you know as an immigrant, as someone who comes from a working class family, who never had anybody go to university let alone getting a Master’s degree, I didn’t have those connections. I didn’t know anybody who had done it before, I was the first one. So I relied on the good old cold call, resume, hundreds of resumes until I got a job. But you know you really have to take it seriously though. You have to apply to a lot of jobs, to make sure that your resume is professional. You have to make sure your cover letter is on point.
TURNER: And specific, right.
JBEILI: Specific and not vague, not general. They have to feel that you’ve cared enough to spend those extra 5 minutes fine tuning it for them. So that’s how I got most of my jobs. But I think a lot of it, the jobs that I got because of nonprofits was because my multi-cultural background. Speaking Arabic, speaking Swedish, English, French, having this background. The composition of who I was as an individual helped me because it ultimately was at mirror reflection of the kind of job I wanted. So it worked very well for me in that sense.
TURNER: What was the interview process like for LAU, for your current position?
JBEILI: My first sort of encounter was a phone screening with HR. After I was invited to the first round of interviews which was with HR. And then my second interview was actually with the Vice President of Advancement and then my third interview was, and I’m not joking, was with 15 people.
TURNER: *laughs* Like a panel?
JBEILI: Yes. There was a round table interview where they were shooting questions at me for like 4 feet hours. I was drained afterwards, it was exhausting. But yeah I got the job. *laughs*
TURNER: So you know for a place like CUNY, probably at more universities, the hiring process is extremely slow, also federal government they’re famous for a very slow hiring process. What’s it like for a nonprofit? How long did this take?
JBEILI: At the nonprofit sector, this took about… from my initial phone call until I signed the contract, about 3 months.
TURNER: Oh okay, that’s kind of long I guess. Alright so it’s good to just be, if you are looking for senior level in the nonprofit world, be prepared to have a little patience?
JBEILI: Absolutely and a lot of it also has to do with again sort of the structure of how these spaces are set up. You have to go through a lot of the appropriate channels, everyone has to be on the same page, make sure that the president signs off and they’re very busy. So yeah it does take it does take a while. You have to be patient.
TURNER: So is there anything else you wanted to add? I was kind of thinking would you like to add to sign off with some advice to graduate students?
JBEILI: Yeah I think my advice would be… the thing that I took the most out of my experience here was the fact that my cognitive skills improved, right. And that just helped me in life in general. So yes careers are very important but who you are as a person, that is what sticks with you the rest of your life. And wanting to improve and wanting to constantly learn and be curious and be creative, all of that was really fostered here. And I hope that the current students really feel that that’s the experience that they got by being here. And so if they get a short term gig after this or long term gig after that or they switch fields, the importance is that through hopefully being here that they just learn to be better people. I think that is like the fundamental lesson that I got from here was that my hunger to keep learning and growing and developing never went away from me. And so yeah if I switch to another job, which ultimately most people will do, you’re still that individual that wants to keep learning and growing.
TURNER: Right having these experiences that are continually adding to you.
JBEILI: So I’ve had this question from my friends before which is like what do you value the most by your life. And it really is my education because I don’t feel that if I didn’t have the higher education I would have been that same person. And be able to navigate my life in the way that I have, to be okay with things no matter what, because your education comes a shield. You’re not as fragile you know. If you lose your job you get another job, you have a Master’s or a PhD you know.
TURNER: Yeah, ok great! Well if that’s everything, want to really thank you for coming in and spending some time with us to give students advice. We really appreciate and we hope to be in touch soon!
JBEILI: Yeah thank you so much!
TURNER, VOICE-OVER: Thanks again to Elida for coming in to talk with us about her career journey and experience in nonprofits. If you want to make an appointment with one of our career advisors, visit our website at cuny.is/careerplan. You can also follow us on Twitter @CareerPlanGC. Thanks for listening!
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