Four years ago, I decided to follow my dreams and my constant love for adventure by choosing to study abroad in a place that I knew no one in and nothing about. Fast forward to the day I arrived at Fargo, looked out the plane window at the landscape below and thought to myself, “Oh god, is this the whole city? Why is it so tiny?” Coming from a metropolitan city like Cairo, Egypt, this change was definitely a lot to take in at first. However, I am more than thankful for the experiences and opportunities moving to North Dakota allowed me to have. With a different cultural background, several challenges arise. I am certain that such challenges are what make me the determined and strong-willed person and professional I am today.
I joined North Dakota State University as a Journalism major, hoping to become a war journalist. Every time I’d tell my parents that, they’d respond like all real Arab parents would: “Out of everything you can do, you choose war journalism? Why would you chase trouble?” Little did they know I would shift majors and careers to an even more risky profession — Emergency Management (EM) and Communication.
For those unfamiliar with what Emergency Management is, it refers to the managerial function charged with creating the framework within which communities reduce vulnerability to hazards and cope with disasters. My coursework varies from World Disasters, Vulnerable Populations, Preparedness, Organizational Communication, Intercultural Communication, Social Media & Web Design and more. Emergency Management and Communication are a perfect blend of my love for social interactions and my desire to deal with constant challenges, with the sole goal of helping those in need. Through such an academic foundation, I hope to eventually work in the emergency management public or nonprofit sector.
During my time in the states, I was able to serve in several positions that play a huge role towards my professional development. I worked as a general reporter for a campus-based news show and with Lutheran Social Services as a Disaster Preparedness Intern for refugees in the Fargo-Moorhead area. Moreover, I currently serve as a Red Cross Disaster Caseworker, Resident Assistant, and Campus Service Representative of the Emergency Management Student Association. I’m also helping with several prevention & response efforts within the current COVID-19 pandemic.
If there is one thing being a minority presents me with in the EM sector, it’s a drive to prove my ability of doing the job to everyone who doubts it. Such doubts not only come from those who are of different cultures/nationalities, but also, my own people, which makes it harder.
EM is a very patriarchal and military-based profession in the Middle East; therefore, wanting to pursue a summer job or training back home is extremely difficult.
I remember being told by a fellow Arab professional in one of the largest EM international conferences, “If you were my sister, I would advise you to switch back to journalism. Being an Arab girl is not suitable for the field of EM in the Middle East.” Imagine being told that in one of your very first professional events; definitely not what you’d wish for.
It is apparent that my ethnic background and Visa status do not always act in my favor.
It is apparent that my ethnic background and Visa status do not always act in my favor. I’ll never forget an experiment we did in a social sciences class where the professor asked all students to list their vulnerabilities and order themselves in a line-like structure based on the number of those vulnerabilities present for each person. Being a female, a person of color, an ethnic minority, an alien, belonging to a religious minority, and having English as a second language placed me at the very end of that line, or the “most vulnerable” person in class. Such experience was extremely eye opening to me. It made me realize how many layers impacted my overall state and vulnerability in American society.
Having to abide by the endless restrictions that come with being on an F1 Student Visa is another eye opener and challenge that came with my status as an international student. (I can only work on campus, have to work less than 20 hours/week, required to apply for employment eligibility paperwork that takes up to 3 months and have multiple restrictions regarding the sectors where I am eligible to work).
As I move further in my coursework and closer to my graduation date, such obstacles keep rising. However, I refuse to let them stop me from reaching my goals. With such a mentality, I believe that one can turn any form of vulnerability into a strength. I was, in fact, able to do so through using my ethnic background as a strong and unique professional trait. I’m able to serve populations that many others would not be able to, i.e. Muslims, new Americans, refugees, etc. I also started advocating for the importance of the creation of culturally integrated preparedness and outreach efforts. An example of such advocacy included creating a bilingual severe winter preparedness campaign for new Americans in the area.
If there’s one piece of advice I can give fellow minority students and young professionals in all fields, it’s to never feel ashamed of your differences. Instead, own them. Find a way to use your rich background, experiences, and language to enhance your own career path and to help those around you.
Zeina Abouelazm is a Junior at North Dakota State University (NDSU) pursuing a dual degree in Emergency Management and Management Communication. She is the recipient of several scholarships including the Cultural Diversity Resources and Lorraine Murphy scholarships. Zeina is an Egyptian, born and native. She spent 7 years of her life in Saudi Arabia, until 2017, when she moved to the US for college. She currently serves as a Red Cross Disaster Cycles Team Caseworker and a Resident Assistant at NDSU. Zeina’s time in Saudi Arabia and her early exposure to traveling grew her interest in different cultures. She traveled to a total of 13 countries and hopes to expand such a list as the years go by. Her love for journeying and knowing more about the international system drives her desire to eventually earn a master’s degree in International Relations and pursue a career in international Emergency Management or Humanitarian Affairs.