Illustration by Shenuka Corea
Alongside a cluster of other anxieties, job hunting season is upon the seniors of NYU Abu Dhabi. Most people want to achieve a certain definition of success: a high paying salary at a large, international firm and quick promotions boosting them to the top of the career ladder.
But what about those that don’t want to follow the beaten path? The Gazelle interviewed NYUAD professors about their careers before NYUAD, and they revealed some rather unconventional jobs that they have held in the past.
A first year writing seminar lecturer, Boisen has had a unique array of professional experiences. Over the course of her life she has worked at a bakery, a wild animal sanctuary and for 11 years after getting her undergraduate degree in History, as a dungeon tour guide at Kronborg Castle in Denmark. For those who do not know, Kronborg Castle is the site of Shakespeare’s famous play Hamlet.
The job allowed her to be close to the historical sights she loved, but it was not always sunshine and rainbows.
“I was tasked with giving people tours of the underground dungeons, which had also doubled as barracks for soldiers at the time of a siege. I had to do 14 tours a day and often the tourists would just become terrified of the dark and the bats and start latching on to me,’’ she said. “I remember there was a Japanese tourist once who got really scared and wouldn’t let go.’’
She did, however, get to meet a lot of famous people.
“There were a lot of royals, and a lot of celebrities who kept visiting,’’ she recalled. “I literally bumped into the Queen of Denmark once. There was always stuff happening there.’’
Does she have any regrets?
“Just one,’’ she said, laughing. ‘‘I once refused to give Jude Law a tour of the castle. He had come there to be the lead in a staging of Hamlet, and I actually ran into him and went, Hey! The Prince of Denmark has arrived, and he just looked at me oddly and walked away. Later, they asked me to give him a tour of the place and I refused because it was the same day I was flying back to Cardiff and I was so focused on getting my PhD and passing my viva that I said no thank you, but in hindsight I could have easily pushed my flight back and given him the tour. One day less wouldn’t have made any difference. What a bummer!’’ she exclaimed.
Professor Kirasirova of the History department went to college at Brown University, intending to be a Computer Science major. Her interest in history started when she accidentally went into the wrong classroom and found herself in a Middle Eastern history class. She decided to stay.
Much to the embarrassment of her immigrant Russian parents, who had wanted her to create a secure future for herself, she majored in International Relations and English Literature. As a result, while her computer science friends were getting recruited by Google and Microsoft, she set her mind on visiting the Arab world, which had become her area of interest. Fresh out of college, she ended up at the American University of Cairo in Egypt as a librarian.
“Moving to Egypt was a great adventure,’’ she said.
“Like most people who live in Egypt, I both hated it and loved it. It was very interesting, and it was very difficult. I learned a tremendous amount of Arabic and I learned a lot about Egyptian culture and Islam. There were a few of us in the internship program I was a part of, and we partied a lot and invited a lot of Egyptian people to those parties.’’
Elaborating on the difficulties, she explained that they mostly had to do with the pollution, and the everyday problems of being a foreign woman in Egypt.
“As a college student at Brown, the difference between myself and my male friends was much less manifest, and most of the time it hardly ever crossed my mind. Egypt required a steep learning curve in that respect. On one of our first weekends, my friends from the internship program and I decided to visit Alexandria to see a new city and go to the beach. We found some free crowded public beach in a lower-to middle-class neighborhood which we quickly realized required a degree of social conformity. In that respect it was very different from Abu Dhabi. The beach was crowded with men in different stages of undress and women all in abayas —no burkini in sight, and none of the women were in the water. We realized we couldn’t just go swimming as we were, but luckily a man was walking down the beach selling galabiyyas that went below the knee. We bought these and went in the water, but all the men started laughing and hissing at us. When we got back to Cairo and showed the pictures to our intern coordinator she also laughed. Apparently our galabiyyas were meant for large male children,’’ she said.
Does she regret not taking the conventional approach and landing a job in the United States after college?
“Not at all! A lot of my friends moved to New York after we graduated and just spent two years partying there in the West Village while I got to learn so much and do so much. I think the first four months I was there I barely slept because of how excited I was to explore the place,’’ she reflected.
Sitting in his office among his collection of plastic animals, Professor Siebert has many stories to tell about his adventures. He delayed his graduation to work in a steel mill for several years and earned enough money to travel to Europe, where he became a lumberjack in the Swiss Alps. He found himself in New York in 1977 without a job but with a passion for writing poetry.
He spent his free time at poetry workshops. And while the rest of his time was occupied by long hours of cutting meat as a butcher at a steak restaurant in the city, one of the poetry workshops led to him to a fellowship at a Masters of Fine Arts program in Houston.
“The irony of taking this job is that all those years ago, oil money from Houston got me to move there and now all these years later oil money from Abu Dhabi got me to move here, so it's always about following the money,’’ he joked.
While studying for his MFA, he got two jobs. The first one as an English tutor to college athletes, and the second as a roofer.
“At the time Houston was one of the powerhouses of college sports, so I was tutoring people like Hakeem Olajuwan and Michael Young and Doug Drabek, who all went on to become great national level players,’’ he remembered fondly.
“At the same time, I got another job, and this is about the dumbest job you can get, working as a roofer with Padgett Powell who went on to become a very well known novelist.’’
However, struck by the same restlessness that had previously interrupted his undergraduate education, he was on the move again as soon as he got his MFA.
“When I got my degree, my mentor said ‘You’re publishing in the New Yorker and you’re a hot poet here, so stay and get your Ph.D.’, [but I thought] I couldn’t stand the idea of being in academia,’’ he said, laughing. ‘’So I moved to New York again and resumed my job working as a butcher and got another job as a teacher at Sing Sing prison teaching maximum security inmates how to write.’’
The path to success may not always be straightforward. It may be riddled with different challenges and experiences. As the professional careers of professors Boisen, Kirasirova and Siebert demonstrate, taking risks and doing unconventional things may sometimes become some of the most rewarding experiences of our lives.
At the very least, they make for fun stories later on.
Correction: 12 Feb., 2018. A previous version of this article had the title "First Jobs" and a since redacted quotation by Professor Boisen
Sobha Gadi is Features Deputy. Email him at [email protected]