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SIS Alumni Reflect on Graduating during the COVID-19 Pandemic

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College is sometimes described as the most exciting time of your life. You get to make new friends, learn about a subject in which you are deeply interested, and emerge ready for an exciting career. The years of countless study sessions, tests, and papers pay off in the end when you celebrate graduation and the start of what comes next. But what happens when your plans get turned upside down by the emergence of a highly contagious and deadly virus?

We spoke with four SIS alumni to learn what it was like to graduate during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and enter the workforce as the world went into lockdown in 2020. How were their individual paths affected? What advice do they have for those going through challenges at the beginning of their careers? Their stories can provide inspiration for anyone staring down a milestone, excited but uncertain of what’s to come.

Cut Yourself Some Slack

After taking part in AU’s Community of Scholars pre-college program, Maria Humayun, SIS/BA ’20, transferred to SIS for the fall 2018 semester after two years at Ohio State University. Once at SIS, Humayun hit the ground running, accepting an internship with the National Association of Attorney Generals (NAAG) and taking every opportunity to engage with her classmates: “I immediately thought my peers were very impressive, and studying with them and hearing their opinions really helped me think about global issues in different ways.”

All of Humayun’s studies and experiences culminated in her last undergraduate semester as she enrolled in the US State Department Diplomacy Lab Capstone with Ambassador Earl Anthony Wayne, SIS Distinguished Diplomat in Residence: “It didn’t even feel like school; It felt like I was working in my field of study. My last class on campus actually was meeting with my capstone group before we went on spring break. We were looking forward to presenting our paper to the State Department, and we definitely didn’t think that we wouldn’t see each other after the break."

“I started taking classes from my bed, and my capstone presentation ended up being over Zoom,” explains Humayun. “I’d always looked forward to graduation when things were tough, like, ‘I’m going to walk across the stage and somebody’s going to hand me a degree.’ Our graduation ended up being virtual. That was it.”

With all the changes that the COVID-19 pandemic brought, Humayun is thankful for many things: “My group’s capstone paper ended up getting published by CSIS, and NAAG offered me a job. A lot of things didn’t go my way, but I’ve learned to cut myself some slack and be kind to myself. It sounds cliché, but it’s so, so important.”

Plan Ahead

As the son of a diplomat, Aaron Mohabbat, SIS/BA ’20, knew he wanted to pursue a career in international relations. After coming to AU and spending a couple of years at SIS, Mohabbat decided to apply to the US Fulbright Program and become an English Teaching Assistant after graduation: “I wanted to go to a country where I knew the language and culture and could bridge the gap between English teachers and students. I also wanted to use the critical thinking skills I gained at AU and ensure my students in Tajikistan would be taught the same.”

Coming from an Afghan family and an ethnically Tajik mother, Mohabbat speaks fluent Farsi and saw a natural connection to teaching in Tajikistan: “Farsi is the most prominent language spoken in Afghanistan, Iran, and Tajikistan. Because of American safety concerns, Tajikistan is the only one of these three countries available to go to through the Fulbright program.”  

Mohabbat found out in April 2020 that he got into the Fulbright program. However, within a few weeks, he got the news that the program would be deferred due to the COVID-19 pandemic, first until January 2021 and then, ultimately, until August 2021. Thankfully, Mohabbat has been able to pivot and received a full-time offer from his part-time fellowship at the Meridian International Center in July 2020.

“What helped me the most was having multiple plans if things didn’t go my way. I had a Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C,” says Mohabbat. “You need to think to yourself, ‘what else could I do?’ It could save you a lot of hardship and time to figure that out ahead of time.”

Change Your Perspective

Mica Annis, SIS/BA ’20, joined AU after an alum came to speak about the college in her high school’s AP government class. In her first semester at SIS, Annis signed up for a seminar titled What is Suffering? with SIS professor emeritus Paul Wapner. She highlights this as her favorite memory from her time at AU: “We looked at the various types of suffering that exist not only in international politics but in infectious diseases, the Bible, and more. It was a class truly focused on learning, and it was a really special experience. Professor Wapner actually had us all over to his house for homemade lasagna one night. It felt like he was taking care of us both academically and personally.”

In her last semester at AU, Annis had committed to doing a Boren Scholarship in Senegal and, afterward, joining the Peace Corps. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and all of her plans were postponed. Needing to find something to do, Annis took a job as a nanny. A few months into this job, the State Department office that Annis had interned for while an undergrad—the Office of Security and Human Rights—contacted her about a contract position dealing with human rights abuses in the Middle East and North Africa: “This transition from an informal workforce to a very formalized one in the US government taught me a lot. It taught me about how to communicate properly with supervisors and allocate my time effectively.” 

“Now, I’m a contractor with the Office of Foreign Assistance at the State Department,” says Annis. “I oversee the budgets of US assistance in Europe. I actually just got back from Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, where I was doing budget and program reviews for those countries.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic changed her career trajectory, Annis is grateful for the perspective and lessons it brought: “A lot of people tie their identities to their careers. I definitely was thinking like that before the pandemic, but I learned to start to value things outside of my work. Having hobbies and things that you enjoy when there are crazy things going on is really, really important.”

Look For Open Doors

“The main reason I came to SIS actually was because of its reputation for producing Peace Corps volunteers” says Alexander Csanadi, SIS/BA ’20. “Growing up in a small town in New Mexico, I wanted to explore the world through international development, so that’s what really got me in the door at SIS.”

After his freshman year, Csanadi got into the Olson Scholars program and was paired with SIS professor Rachel Robinson for his research. This research program led Csanadi to apply for and be accepted to the SIS Honors program where he was mentored by SIS professor Jennifer Poole: “These two brilliant faculty members dedicated a lot of one-on-one time to me. Both of them were very generous and continue to be very helpful in my career.”

In February 2020, Csanadi ended up not getting into the Peace Corps in Morocco as he originally planned. As he was trying to figure out what he was going to do now after college, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and added a new layer of complexity. After sending out applications to DC-based think tanks and research assistantships, Csanadi joined a health economics agency as an analyst in June 2020. Less than a year later, Csanadi got an interesting e-mail from one of his SIS mentors: “Out of the blue, Professor Robinson forwarded me a link to the Junior Fellows program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Since you have to apply through a University, I reached out to the Office of Merit Awards and they, along with Professor Aaron Boesenecker, helped me write and get accepted into the fellowship.”

“While certain doors closed, other doors opened,” reflects Csanadi. “It’s easy to compare your life to an alternate timeline you’ll never know, but I think not being rigid in your expectations of the world can only be a positive for you.”