The Tools We Need to Lead

International Intern Claire leads a meeting with volunteers One of my first days as a TYO intern, I had the opportunity to participate in an open discussion between the U.S. Consul General of Jerusalem, Michael Ratney, and returning volunteers from TYO’s Student Training and Employment Program (STEP!). The conversation revolved around the high unemployment rate of Palestinian youth and the related challenges that our community members face in seeking employment after graduation from university. I was eager to hear the voices of our volunteers, as I knew I would be working with this very population while facilitating a leadership course at An-Najah University throughout my internship. This course, in addition to STEP!, is giving students the tools they need to make the transition from university to work by bridging the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical experience.

I received my Bachelor’s degree a year ago, and while I listened to our volunteer’s thoughts, I couldn’t help but compare their challenges to my own. My four years in university were marked by the recession in the U.S., and my peers and I were consciously aware of how lucky we were to find jobs after graduation, paid or unpaid. But, when I compare the youth unemployment rates in the U.S. to Palestine, it’s difficult to fathom the enormity of challenges faced by youth here. Youth unemployment has hovered between 13% and 15% in the last year in the United States, whereas quarterly figures reported in Palestine showed nearly 43.9% of unemployment amongst youth ages 16-24. This high rate of unemployment has remained nearly stagnant in Palestine since 2001, whereas we can see a trend towards lower rates of unemployment in America.

The question is: why? Our volunteers emphasized how their university educations valued textbook learning over practical experience. For many of them, volunteering at TYO was the only opportunity they had to gain work experience during their time in college. For some, though, this volunteer experience is not sufficient for potential employers in certain fields of work. Others articulated how available employment lacks livable wages. One volunteer said that she was qualified for a job in Ramallah, but the compensation would only be enough to cover her transportation to and from work. A 2013 report by the Sharek Youth Forum, titled “The Future is Knocking at the Door” attributes high rates of youth unemployment to “the weak Palestinian economy in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, disparities between male and female employment rates, a lack of productive opportunities in the Palestinian market, the gap between education and the labor market and the absence of a comprehensive Palestinian policy on youth employment.” Because of the myriad of obstacles graduates face, TYO is working with students at An-Najah University to increase their employability.

As assistants to a leadership course at An Najah University, Jade and I are helping to fill the need for English instruction, communication skills, and professional competency skills. During the meeting with the Consul General, I was impressed with how every participant was thinking critically about his or her education and articulating the need for more professional training. Since the leadership course consists of mostly freshmen, we hope to encourage this type of critical thinking early in the students’ studies.

In a recent blog post, one of our volunteers, Amal, reiterated these challenges: “The universities do not do a good job of preparing graduates for the labor market. For example, I spent four years at my university only developing academic knowledge without any practice application. I was shocked when I began applying for jobs to learn that the knowledge I gained at university was in no way directly applicable to the job market.”

Throughout the session, not only will Jade and I help students develop the necessary skills to successfully apply for jobs, but we also want students to do so confidently. We will work to help students gain public speaking and persuasion skills, all while boosting their abilities and confidence in conversational and written English.

I look forward to working with the students at An-Najah University as they develop skills to take on leadership roles in Palestine. My hope is that, as future leaders, this group of students will be the ones to bring about institutional changes to Palestinian universities so that future students will feel prepared and confident to enter the labor market upon graduation.

-Claire is a Fall 2014 International Intern at TYO

This program is funded by the Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation (AHSF).