A recipient of a Masters in International and Regional Studies (MIRS) with a specialization in Middle Eastern & North African Studies (MENAS) and an MA in Public Policy in the spring of 2020, Leah Squires exited college into a brave, new world. Before attending U-M, Leah had received a dual BA in English Literature and Ethnomusicology from the University of Rochester, worked at Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization in Oregon, and had gone to Morocco with the Peace Corps.
At CMENAS, Leah took advantage of the interdisciplinary nature of the MIRS program to tailor her education, presented on the “Climate-Migration Nexus in the Middle East and North Africa” at the UM-UPR Curriculum Development Symposium in Puerto Rico, and conducted extensive research at the intersection of her areas of study. She recently elaborated about her experiences at CMENAS and shared her future plans. The interview has been slightly edited.
What was your most memorable experience at U-M?
My most memorable experiences at U-M were when I integrated travel into my curriculum. I led the International Economic Development Program in Morocco (2019), an experiential and research learning initiative for policy students. (I also graduated with an MPP from the Ford School of Public Policy.) I had the chance to meet with Moroccans from across various sectors to discuss national water policy and its climate and human impacts. A year later, I leveraged my research on water security and migration (and prior teaching experience) to participate in the UM-UPR Pedagogy Symposium in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I benefited from learning about other scholars’ research, and we came together to discuss best pedagogical practices to translate our research into tangible lesson plans for high school teachers. I enjoyed designing the research-based curriculum because I could reach different audiences than ones I would normally connect with through traditional publication.
What have you been doing since graduation, and what are you looking forward to in the coming year?
Graduating in the midst of a pandemic has completely transformed my expectations. Despite the gravity of COVID-19, it wasn’t until this summer that I truly relinquished hope of moving to Jordan. I’d intended to settle in Amman to continue studying Arabic and find work, and I still hope I can when it’s safe to do so. While a dream job is an elusive idea to me, I want to find a position in the humanitarian aid and/or policy sector.
Since graduation, I’ve remained in Ann Arbor—an unexpected twist, but moving anywhere made little sense for me in the current climate. But I finally got to enjoy a Michigan summer! I spent my free time in the garden and exploring State Parks. I’ve also been able to continue working with ACCESS, a community-based organization in Dearborn, MI, to develop their theory of change and strategic plan.
Currently, I’m a Fellow with the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) at Qasid. Under normal circumstances, I’d meet the cohort in Amman, but instead we’re convening on Zoom. I appreciate my peers’ commitment to create an immersive language experience online, and I’ve enjoyed being back in a classroom.
In addition to my studies, I’m also looking forward to baking professionally again; in December I’m launching my own business, A Rogue Baker, to sell homemade bagels. Aside from the need for quality bagels in Ann Arbor, I want to reconnect with people in the community. We can’t gather around the table or share food like we used to, so this enterprise feels like a small way to reach out toward each other.
What advice do you have for current CMENAS students to get the most out of their studies?
What I love most about Area Studies is the interdisciplinary nature of the degree; it’s the fundamental reason why I elected to pursue my MA The flexible curriculum meant I could find applicable coursework across departments—sometimes in unexpected places. One of my favorite (and most informative) classes ended up being at Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. Global and Comparative Planning with Dr. Lesli Hoey offers students a chance to critically interrogate the historical and ongoing implications of international development and governance processes. Dr. Hoey brings together a rich syllabus, highlighting perspectives from governments, multilateral organizations, social movements, NGOs, and others. I'm a nerd, so I loved the readings, but we also relied on case studies and debates to generate discussions on different topics, e.g. migration, housing development, disaster management. I was always excited for class (even though it was at 9 a.m. and a five-mile bike ride from my house).
I’d also advise students to look for learning opportunities that take them outside of the classroom. Such opportunities can take many forms: a bi-weekly goal to attend one of UM’s many lectures or performances, presenting at a conference, or conducting summer research abroad.