Amiena Mahsoob
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Amiena Mahsoob

World Affairs Council

Amiena Mahsoob joined the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh in December 2008 shortly after she returned to Pittsburgh after three years of teaching in Japan. Prior to that, she taught tenth grade English in the Pittsburgh area.  As part of the Council's education team, she has used her international education experiences to design and organize large-scale student programs such as the Student Ambassador Program for middle school students as well as several International Student Summits. She is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh’s Master of Arts in Teaching program. As an undergraduate, she studied English at the Pennsylvania State University and studied abroad in Cairo, Egypt. Her personal accomplishments include the completion of the Pittsburgh Marathon as well as the annual BEE Japan Ride, a two month, 2,500 mile eco-cycling tour of Japan. She is a graduate of Leadership Pittsburgh, Inc.’s Leadership Development Initiative class XVII.


In terms of your company culture, how would you describe the culture of the World Affairs Council?

We are a professional organization that deals with the professional community as well as with schools. We work with students as well as teachers and administrators in schools throughout the region, and we also have many business contacts. I would say for a nonprofit we are a little bit more business-oriented and have a little bit more of a professional feel than maybe some other nonprofits do. We also have the opportunity to be really creative in our work and to try new programs, venues, topics and different approaches.


So how do you say that diversity factors into the culture at the World Affairs Council?

Because Pittsburgh is one of the least diverse metropolitan regions of its size in the country, we are very aware of that fact, and we are very aware of that regarding our programs for the professional community and students. We need to give people more opportunities to interact with more diverse audiences.

Diversity factors into the organizational culture in a few different ways. One, is trying to incorporate people on the staff level in a pretty wide variety of experiences in order to reach out to students with more diverse backgrounds. We try to be aware of the student population that generally is interested in our programs, as well as students who might be less interested, and focusing on attracting kids who should be interested in international things. Specifically, we have the global travel scholarship program that sent 20 high school juniors abroad last year to 17 different countries. For that particular program, we are really looking at diversity in a couple of different ways. We are looking at racial and ethnic diversity, geographical diversity, and students who otherwise would not have the opportunity to travel overseas.


What role do you think diversity plays in international education?

I think it depends on how you define diversity. I think it is really important for everyone regardless of their background to have international experiences and to be interested in and have knowledge of the rest of the world, and how they are connected to the rest of the world. Particularly coming from the perspective of working in Pittsburgh, which is not a very diverse city, it is really important for people to have experiences with others who are not like them and who come from neighborhoods that are not like their neighborhoods, especially if they can have experiences with other countries and cultures.


How would you personally define diversity?

I think diversity is a range. It is regional, ethnic, LGBTQI, socioeconomic, as well as diversity of many kinds of backgrounds and cultures. Education plays a part in that as well.


Diversifying the students who participate in international education or study abroad has been discussed in the field for many years. Would you specifically have an opinion about what kind of progress has been made in that area?

Purely from the perspective of our organization, we have made huge strides in sending students overseas. For example, we have a global travel scholarship program that started 10 years ago, which I believe we had 6 students participating in at first. This past year, we sent 20 students. We have really made an effort to have a diverse group of students go on the program as well. As far as the number of applicants, we often have many young women who will apply, but we are specifically interested in sending African American males and students from rural areas who have had very few experiences with any sort of diversity.

I think you have done a pretty good job with that program, but I am not sure about other organizations and what the figures are. I am seeing, though, that students who apply here for jobs and for internships, more and more of them have studied abroad in some capacity. But I am not sure about young men. This seems, from my perspective, to be a gap within international education. There are more women, more young women, than young men who are traveling abroad.


What role do you think diversity would play in international education over the next 5 years?

I think it is increasingly important for everyone to have an experience overseas. And even if people do not have a direct experience abroad, they should have experiences interacting with people from other countries and cultures. We do several video conference programs with students internationally, and that for us is important for students, even if they are isolated, provincial communities, to have experiences with their peers internationally. I think through things like that, such as having a Skype chat with people overseas, I think you can see that happening more and more -- in the elementary, middle school, and high school classrooms. Hopefully, universities are also doing the same.


Do you think the economic downturn will have a negative effect or adverse -- to diversify international education?

I think more than just the economic downturn has affected international education. I would guess that it would affect. I am not sure how disproportionate that affect has been. I know that after September 11th, there were many schools in fear of that, so they went ahead and cut their study abroad programs because they were afraid of sending students overseas. I think we have finally just recovered from that when the economic downturn happened in 2008.

 It seems like people are still going overseas but I'm not sure. Again, I am not sure exactly what the numbers are, but our programs haven't necessarily been affected in terms of our travel program and our other programs. Our other international education programs have been affected because students cannot necessarily come on site for a program, but we have come by doing video conferencing. Hopefully, if organizations have been creative and flexible, they have found some way to compensate.


Many institutions have diversity initiatives and internationalization initiatives. Do you see synergies between these two initiatives?

I guess I do not see why they should be two separate initiatives. That does not make sense to me because if you only see diversity as a domestic issue, then it does not actually take into account the whole human spectrum, which is included in the internationalization initiative. I think if those things are melded and then broadened, you can get much further because it does not make the distinctions between the two. I think the skill sets needed for diversity initiatives and for internationalization initiatives are fairly similar. I think probably part of the problem is that they are usually two different programs and sometimes coming from two different funding streams. Because of that, they are kind of passing each other by.


In your opinion what are some of the obstacles that organizations like the World Affairs Council would face in reaching under-served communities?

Since we deal with schools, we are sometimes dealing with things like state testing, as well as funding cuts, which have disproportionally affected schools that have more diverse populations, such as in urban areas. That is one obstacle that we face and have tried to overcome that through doing more direct outreach and also doing more video conferencing.


Do you feel that the quality of international education programs are affected by having participants from diverse academic, economic, ethnic and social backgrounds?

I think it is really important. For example, in the global travel scholarship programs, students travel as a cohort, consisting of about 12 students per group. Because people are from different backgrounds,  they bring different experiences. Also you are going to be affected by an experience in different ways. I think it is a richer experience if you have a more diverse group of kids because they can see things from a variety of different perspectives, which I think is a really important part of international education, and particularly in studying abroad.


Did you study abroad and if so what impact did that have on your life?

I did study abroad and I think it was a very eye-opening experience for me. I came to understand issues like poverty in a very different way than I had prior to going. I understood and was greatly affected by other people's lives and cultures. I think that put me on the tract to doing something with an international focus for the rest of my life, which I have done since that time.

I have had a bunch of different opportunities to study abroad, live abroad and travel. As an undergraduate student, I studied abroad at the American University in Cairo. It was a long time ago in 1999 before people were doing any sort of study abroad programs. I found that out when I went to interview for my first job. It was something that a lot of people asked me about, particularly because it was the Middle East, a region of the world that people do not necessarily know a lot about. That experience gave me an opportunity to highlight some of the skills that I gained from studying abroad. Being flexible, being able to adapt to different environments, and being able to adapt to another culture, whether that is an international culture or work culture, are really important skills to have.

As a professional, I studied abroad in China for three weeks, and again those skills came in handy. Being flexible, being open-minded, and being able to try new things - those were all helpful skills that eventually helped me to get my job teaching abroad in Japan. Since then, I have been to a few different places and have had a wide variety of experiences that helped me get a job with the Japan Exchange and Teaching program (JET). I lived in Japan for three years and then directly after that, I was offered this position. All of those experiences cumulatively were very helpful in getting this job, and have also been helpful in getting other types of scholarships.


How did you get started in the field of international education?

It is such a long story, but I guess I have always been interested in international things. My father is from another country, and we always had friends from a pretty wide variety of countries. I always wanted to study abroad. I had gone abroad as a high school student to France, then studied abroad in Egypt, and have traveled and lived abroad since then. After coming back from Japan, I wanted to be something other than a classroom teacher, but to specifically work in international education.


What has been one of the most interesting foreign policy topics for you to cover and why?

We have covered so many! We have had international student summits that we have been working on over the past few years. Through those, I have done much research, writing and curriculum development. We have hosted programs on cyber security, international responses to natural disasters, and we have also done programs for middle school students called the Student Master Program, where we were able to teach cultural competence to middle school students. I think all of those have been pretty interesting. I am particularly interested in things like cyber security that do not just require your typical UN response or international organization response. I am interested in situations that really require an all hands on deck multi-sector response, which is I think how a lot of international challenges need to be faced at this point. Unfortunately, we do not necessarily have a structure for that. I am also interested in helping students think about what that structure might look like and how to communicate across sectors and across interests. That is what we have tried to simulate through our programs, and it has been really fun to see what the kids come up with.


How would you define a global citizen?

This is a really interesting question because we have varied responses to it. Some people think that being a global citizen is this really great thing, and there are others who think it somehow denies one of the citizenship of their own country. Neither of those really make sense to me, so I think being a global citizen means you are understanding where you are and where you live, and how that connects to the rest of the world. Whether that is understanding international issues, your impact as a consumer, or how your job connects with other people with similar jobs around the world. This also includes having international peers and friends around the world that you are working with. I think all of those things are encompassed in the global citizen.

It seems to me to be a kind of nonpartisan term that. It is neither good or bad, it just is. But it is something I think we should all strive for: understanding our own countries and also be effective in our actions in this world.