Written by Kaylee Boalt ’14 (Nisbet Scholar)
If you had told me eleven years ago as a freshman Model Arab League (MAL) student that I would now be seven years deep into a career in international program management and living in Washington, DC, I would not have believed you.
I did a wide array of things in college, primarily in music, but what would be different if I had not done MAL at Converse. I almost didn’t because I first passed up the opportunity to be in Model League, but my adviser, Dr. Dunn, refused to let me by with my initial fears and told me that I needed to do this whatever my ultimate career might become.
Four years as a MAL debater, chair, and Secretary-General of the National Model in my senior year helped land me my first job after graduation – as a program associate and later the director of student programs at the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations (NCU-SAR) in Washington, DC. In this role, I had an insider’s view on how to run both small and large-scale events and the mighty volunteer effort needed to organize a successful MAL conference. Coordinating with enthusiastic college students and their dedicated faculty advisers to recruit schools to participate, select committee chairs, develop the agenda, identify keynote conference speakers, and manage various forums expanded my organization and planning skills. I traveled a lot and learned how to live on the road.
The relationships formed amongst those exceptional student leaders shaped the foundation of my support circle in DC—you can find MAL alumni everywhere! Students I met in the program now lead very successful careers working for the U.S. government, the corporate and non-profit sectors, or, as they apply their MAL-honed research skills, in think tanks, NGOs, and academic centers. Many work with exchange programs. MAL alums often turn to each other for job-search advice, and it has been a pleasure to witness how the MAL program has shaped the careers of friends I originally met as an 18-year-old freshman college student.
“It was the first time I had ever left the United States and the parallels drawn between my life in the rural American South and life as a college student in a place so very far away from home were illuminating.”Kaylee Boalt ’14
The impact on my own career is staggering. Aside from participating in and planning MAL conferences, I had the opportunity to undertake four international study visits with the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations (NCUSAR)—one visit as a student to Saudi Arabia and three as a staff member, to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Oman. My student experience on the Saudi Arabian study visit was transformational. It was the first time I had ever left the United States and the parallels drawn between my life in the rural American South and life as a college student in a place so very far away from home were illuminating.
Although local customs and learning styles were different, meeting with my Saudi Arabian student counterparts was fascinating. At the end of the day, we all sought to determine an answer to the all-important question of what we wanted to do after graduating. For some of us, that road led to graduate school, for others to start their families, and for the remainder of us, it was straight to the workforce. Despite differences in culture and religion, the ability to see firsthand that young adults across the world struggle with the same challenges and coming-of-age experiences were pivotal to my understanding of the world and the realization that there is so much more to learn and experience beyond my small hometown community.
As an NCUSAR staffer facilitating these study visits for other college students and their MAL professors, I learned the importance of asking thoughtful questions, finding common ground in surprising places, and navigating the complexities of international travel and exchange. After two fundamental years at NCUSAR, I took a position as a program officer at another DC non-profit called the American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACY-PL), a 55-year-old organization that facilitates U.S. State Department-funded exchange programs for politically active leaders aged 25-40.
Many of the skills I learned from participating in MAL and working for the National Council were critical to my success in this role. The amount of research necessary to curate meetings and speakers relevant to the specific policy interests of the international exchange delegates, coupled with the ability to engage in competent conversation on those same policy interests, was a very similar exercise to preparing for a MAL conference. I also leaned on the diplomacy skills learned from MAL to forge relationships and foster common ground between Republican and Democratic bipartisan exchange delegates, in addition to their multi-party counterparts from overseas. Lastly, MAL finessed my capacity to think on my feet in order to problem solve alongside many stakeholders in the face of travel delays, last-minute cancellations, illnesses, and disagreements between delegates.
My experience in MAL also taught me to feel more comfortable navigating the unknown. The travel involved in my role required a new level of confidence and bravery. As a young woman traveling solo to places where women were not necessarily looked upon as leaders and facilitators and where one’s very presence could be questioned, I found it challenging. I was more afraid to undertake this than I was to leave the country the first time for my first Saudi Arabian study visit. But the perseverance, quick thinking, and ability to make new friends honed by debating in and facilitating MAL conferences led to memorable, transformative work visits to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Malaysia.
More than anything, MAL taught me how to become a competent generalist. Whether acting as an environmental issues expert from Oman or a defense professional from Morocco, you have to know enough policy and context to influence and foster meaningful dialogue. Sharpening this skill also gives you the courage to try new things.
After seven years working in study travel and event planning, I recently made a career switch to the corporate social responsibility (CSR) field in DC. Instead of working tangentially to academia and the public sector, I now work very closely with businesses and corporations in the private sector. The learning curve is steep, but so was my journey in Model Arab League. I am now several months into a new job doing meaningful work in tri-sector partnership building between the private, public, and social sectors–all three perspectives I considered when roleplaying as a Model Arab League delegate. CSR work is incredibly fulfilling. The ability to learn new skills in international program management, to work with the private sector, and to immerse myself in new theories of program design is a spectacular challenge.
It has been difficult to see good in the world during the global pandemic. But upon reflecting on my career path, the people and experiences that made me into the person I am, plus the opportunity to develop new skills and apply them to positive change is incredibly rewarding. I am unsure of what the next eleven years will bring, but I know for certain that my time as a MAL participant prepared me to embrace the unknown and to tackle it with curiosity and enthusiasm.
Originally published in Newslines: The Newsletter of the Carolinas Committee on U.S.-Arab Relations