Interview with Tess Kolker, Middle East Studies Graduate, Class of 2018

What have you been doing career-wise since graduating?

After graduating in May 2018, I moved to Taichung, Taiwan to teach English. Prior to studying Arabic in college, I studied Mandarin for 3 years in high school. Spending my junior year in Morocco studying Arabic really transformed my experience studying a language so I hoped to do the same with Mandarin. While I loved my students, I knew that teaching wasn’t the career I wanted to pursue, so I took an opportunity to move to Nepal to work as a Communications Manager for a small nonprofit. This organization runs a children’s home, school, and a women’s center in Surkhet, Nepal. As the Communications Manager, I had the unique opportunity to get to know each program area to better communicate our work and mission to our donors. Due to the pandemic, I returned back to the States where I continued to work for the nonprofit remotely for a few months before transitioning to work in operations at a charter school in New York. While I enjoyed working with children again, I knew that I wanted to get back into the international development space. After my experience at a small nonprofit funded by individual donors, I pursued companies that implement government funded projects.

I now work for Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI), a USAID contractor. I initially worked on the Afghanistan Relocation Team, which is dedicated to supporting our past and current Afghan project staff in their efforts to relocate to the US (via Department of State relocation flights) after the fall of Kabul in August 2021. However, I have recently transitioned to the Asia region where I am supporting two Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH), projects – one in the Philippines and one in Nepal!

How did UW Madison’s Middle East Studies certificate prepare you for your career?

It exposed me to different languages, cultures, and religions. While I have not exclusively worked in the Middle East since graduating, my time studying the region taught me how to learn about the world with a tolerant and open-minded approach.

Is there any advice you would give to a recent graduate when beginning their career?

Network, network, network. While it may be intimidating at first, no one expects you to know everything. Simple phone calls to ask questions about someone’s current position, experience in their field, and education can go a long way in both helping you learn what you want to do and how to get there. After you’ve made a connection, make sure to follow up periodically as these connections may help you in your current job search or your 5th. Feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn!

What was your favorite MES class or professor and why?

Tarek Ziadna, my Arabic TA during my second year of Arabic, was definitely my favorite instructor. He was always supportive, kind, and encouraging even when it was clear that learning languages did not come easily to me. He also shared bits and pieces about his culture and life in Algeria which I always enjoyed. Tarek took our class to Med Cafe on State Street to celebrate the end of our year together – a meal I will never forget!