Asma Jaber graduated in May 2014 from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government with a Master’s degree in Public Policy. She concentrated her studies on human rights, political development, and Middle East affairs. Currently, she is managing the Emirates Leadership Initiative Fellowship at Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership. She co-founded PIVOT, a mobile startup that streamlines access to history and promotes historical preservation digitally across the world through an augmented reality mobile application and platform.
Before attending the Kennedy School, Asma was a legal researcher with the Civil Rights Division at the US Department of Justice, where she addressed domestic civil rights issues related to immigration, employment, and Muslim and Arab-Americans. Most recently, she worked with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Jerusalem where she researched the impact of movement access restrictions on education in the Palestinian territories.
How did you use your Truman scholarship? What was the most valuable thing you learned from your Truman experience?
I used my Truman scholarship to pursue a Master in Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), which has enhanced my quantitative and qualitative policy analysis skills. The most valuable thing I learned from my Truman experience has come from my deeply compassionate and dedicated fellow scholars who taught me how to persevere in the face of both personal and professional struggles when pursuing a life in public service. I continue to find a community of support in my fellow Trumans. In fact, just recently my roommate from Truman Summer Institute (who was also my roommate in graduate school!) and I helped coach each other on how to deal with a strikingly similar situation we were both facing in our professional lives. It gave us both a sense of relief and perspective to talk through the challenge.
Tell me more about your work as Program Manager at the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School.
I manage the Emirates Leadership Initiative, a $15 million fellowship and leadership development initiative at HKS that is funded by the UAE government. As Program Manager, I create financial and professional opportunities for and advise students from the Middle East. Specifically I have increased the representation of Arab students at HKS, while imparting leadership skills, such as communications and conflict management, to future leaders of the U.S. and the Middle East. I have empowered and supported students to take on several initiatives, such as creating a cross-Harvard organization for all Arab students to convene; organizing several events to raise awareness about timely topics, such as Islamophobia; and launching an initiative that supports community development projects for Middle East refugees in the Boston area. I also manage the recruitment and selection of fellowship recipients and organize and lead experiential field visits to the UAE in order to increase awareness of issues in the region among the HKS student body.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your current position? The most challenging?
The most rewarding aspect is being with my fellows every week for leadership seminars and watching them delve deeply into their personal and professional challenges, as they show their real, vulnerable selves. I recognize their growth throughout the process and see the deep bonds they are building, which fills me with hope. The most challenging aspect of my position is that Harvard is a decentralized place, which makes working across different schools and centers very challenging.
Which activities outside of your work are most important to you?
Outside of work, it is very important for me to travel frequently to my parent’s native home of Palestine to educate others about human rights issues on the ground. Whether in Palestine or the White Mountains of New Hampshire, hiking in the mountains and being outdoors will always be soothing and rejuvenating for me. Finally, realizing just how “busy” of lives we lead prompts me to take the time to cook healthy meals and to enjoy the process of creating new dishes (that hopefully taste good too!).
Tell me more about PIVOTtheWorld. What inspired you to co-found this organization and what are your plans for its future?
PIVOTtheWorld is a social enterprise that educates the public about diverse historical narratives that are often untold. The web and mobile product reveals both onsite and virtually to users what specific places looked like in the past and their associated histories. It’s like seeing your current world through a lens of the past!
But the story of its founding is very personal.
I grew up in rural South Carolina, but I felt like I grew up in my parent’s native home of Palestine. My father planted fig and olive trees and even grape vines in our backyard – plants that are definitely not native to the U.S. South. When he told me story after story of Palestine, I felt very connected to Palestine and would imagine what these places must have looked like when he was there.
When my father tragically passed away when I was in graduate school, I knew I must do something to commemorate his village and to share the history of the places he remembered. What I thought would be a one-off project turned into PIVOT. We currently have clients, such as Harvard University, using our technology to deliver tours and historical content to their tourists. Our team plans to launch across greater Boston soon before expanding overseas. We also hope to continue to spearhead movements for youth to educate others about their family heritage in order to increase cross-cultural awareness.
What were the top 3 things you learned from your experience as a Truman-Albright Fellow?
I learned a great deal early on in my career as a Truman-Albright fellow. First, it became clear to me that working at a sexy sounding-place does not always translate into meaningful work. From that I realized that I should chase after the impact I want to have, rather than the title or name of an organization or agency.
I also realized the importance of building bridges across different groups facing similar struggles, something that defines my work in advocacy until this day. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I learned how important it is to stay true to my moral compass, something I never thought could be so difficult in leading careers in public service. But as a Truman-Albright fellow, the leaders who spoke to us illustrated through example just how this could be done.