September 05, 2019

Liria Gjidija

Which school did you attend at Columbia? Why Columbia?

I attended Teachers College at Columbia University to pursue my master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies, with a concentration on Social Organizational Psychology and Human Development. As a first generation American born to Albanian refugee parents, attending a school like Columbia University has always been a dream of mine, but always felt out of reach. I remember the day I was accepted to TC like it was yesterday! I could hardly contain my excitement and sat on a curb in the Lower East Side and just burst into tears, so much so that someone in the street stopped to ask me if I’m okay and I told them the news and they started crying, too! 

What can I say? It’s one of the most prestigious universities in the world in the greatest city in the world! I loved my experience at Columbia! 

What did you enjoy the most at Columbia?

The world’s leading scholars were within the reach at TC. I was fortunate enough to have Dr. Aaron Pallas and Dr. Warner Burke as my advisors while pursuing my degree. I took an elective in education and public policy with Dr. Pallas, and in a crazy turn of events, this has shaped my career trajectory. My first job out of a graduate school was in compliance, focusing on policy development and labor compliance for New York University in Abu Dhabi, something I never anticipated to do post-grad. I credit that class for equipping me with the tools necessary to really understand what policy in education meant, how to develop policies and how important they are to an educational institution. 

Did you have a favorite place on campus? 

I’m a New York City native and was a commuter student. While I loved my experience at Columbia, my time on campus was quite limited, as I worked full time and was also on the board of a children’s non-profit. While I lived in the East Village, it still took me over an hour (3 trains and a bus) to get to campus. When I had time, I actually loved exploring the Upper West Side. Living in the East Village and working in Midtown, the Upper West seemed like a galaxy away. Since graduation in 2011, I actually haven’t been up there since! 

If I had to choose a particular spot on campus, I would say the Library. One of my best memories was during finals week when a band was performing outside of the Gottesman. I remember being so stressed out from my studies and sitting on the steps and immediately felt so at ease. 

You currently serve as the President of UAE’s chapter of CAA. Could you describe how you initially got involved with alumni community here? 

When I initially moved to the UAE from NYC seven years ago, I reached out to the CAA in the UAE, but unfortunately the alumni group wasn’t active. A few years later, I received an invite to an event and contacted the board to see how I could be more involved. They were just establishing a new board and I was offered a position as the Director of Alumni Engagement and Communication for the CAA in the UAE, which oversaw our social media channels and external comms. I also worked closely with the CAA NYC to identify new alumni in the region and assisted our chapter with various alumni events. After serving about two years, I was elected president, something that has been an incredible honor for me. 

How has the alumni community changed throughout your time serving on the board/in the UAE?

There’s definitely more of a sense of community within the alumni chapter. When I initially joined, we averaged a handful of alumni who attended our events. As the years passed, we managed to develop a number of partnerships in the region and also saw a significant increase in the number of attendees. In 2019 alone, we’ve more than quadrupled the number of programs we’ve developed, and also saw a significant increase of alumni who have attended our events. At several points this year, we’ve even had to put a cap on our events because we were way over capacity! The increased exposure and engagement by our alumni has been off the charts and really gratifying. 

We’ve also had a recent restructuring of our board and revamped our social media channels, by rolling out new Facebook and LinkedIn pages. Earlier in the spring, we developed our first quarterly newsletter, which was sent to the 250+ alumni in the region and was very well received. Our newsletters contain information about upcoming events and features alumni profiles through our #CAAinUAE campaign, which highlights the contributions and achievements our alumni have made in the UAE. The engagement of these external channels continues to grow and fuels our board’s momentum. 

Overall, It’s been great seeing familiar faces at events and welcoming new alumni to our chapter. The enthusiasm has been great. 

Could you describe what you do today, and is this what you thought you'd be doing while you were studying at Columbia? 

Not by a long shot! I actually never even envisioned myself leaving Manhattan, let alone the United States! 

I currently serve as the Associate Director of the Office of Social Responsibility and Community Engagement at NYU Abu Dhabi. In this inaugural role, I’ve developed a comprehensive program of educational opportunities that has met the expressed educational and social needs of contracted staff assigned to the NYUAD project and domestic workers employed by our faculty and staff bodies. Our adult education program offers 12 certificate programs in an array of subjects from English in the Workplace, Computer and Financial literacy, Preventative Health, and more! We have contracted staff that represents close to 40 different nationalities. While they work in different capacities at the university, be it security, facilities, cafeteria staff, drivers, etc, they collectively serve as the backbone of our institution and as the second-largest student population at NYUAD. The first program of its kind in the region, it’s now being used as an educational model for other institutions. It's been quite an incredible journey and humbling to see how this program has grown parallel to our undergraduate studies. 

How do you leverage your work experience in assisting the UAE chapter of the CAA?

Through my position at NYUAD, I’ve developed relationships that have easily overlapped between both of my roles. An example of this would be during the Special Olympics World Games, where I was part of the organizing committee for NYUAD. Through this partnership, I was able to identify volunteer opportunities for our chapter and in March, we served as volunteers for Team USA and the Motorized Sports Games. Through NYUAD’s Art Center, we hosted an alumni event with Palestinian American comedian Maysoon Zayid, where we enjoyed watching her standup and were even treated to a meet and greet post-show. Last spring, we also partnered with Art Dubai, where we brought both a group from NYU Abu Dhabi and Columbia University for a private showing of the exhibition halls. This was a great opportunity for us to connect the two groups and buildout partnerships in the region. 

As the chapter president, what would you like the alumni reading this to know about the club?

We have an incredible board that works tirelessly in really bringing the vision of our alumni chapter alive. What I love most about our board is that we’re comprised of alumni from SIPA, Columbia College, Business School, Teachers College and the Graduate School of Architecture. What this means is that we all have a unique set of ideas and different ways to go about looking at things and developing programming, which is reflected in the array of opportunities we’ve offered.  

Our grasp has been broad and continues to deepen. As we continue to foster these relationships, we’re also developing new ones. Just this month, we had a government entity approach us with a job opportunity that they asked that we share amongst our alumni. We’ve also worked with AmCham Dubai in participating in programming that fosters a greater relationship with Emirati alumni who attended schools in the US and vice versa. In collaboration with the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi, we’ve met with prospective students at an Education USA fair, and the list goes on! I urge all of you to get involved. It’s an enriching opportunity to not only network amongst our esteemed alumni, but also meeting experts in your field of interest that could serve as a mentor, or even offer you advice and guidance in your career path. 

The momentum is strong and we look forward to welcoming you at our next event!