#CGAat15 Faculty Interview Series: Dean Vera Jelinek

Vera Banner

This year, the Center for Global Affairs (CGA) celebrates its 15th Anniversary. To mark this occasion, the Global Affairs Review (GAR) sat down with Dr. Vera Jelinek, to discuss her CGA journey and experience. Dr. Jelinek’s mission to create a community of global citizens has spanned over three decades at New York University. Under her direction, 2004 brought the birth of the Masters of Science in Global Affairs program and the emergence of the CGA in lower Manhattan’s historic Woolworth Building. Dr. Jelinek maintains close ties with international and non-governmental organizations, the UN community, international media, the private sector and government agencies. She has a Ph.D. in modern European history from NYU, a Masters in International Affairs from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a B.A. in history from Queens College. 

Global Affairs Review: Can you share with us how your journey at CGA began?

Dean Jelinek: My CGA journey actually began at NYU’s School of Professional Studies (SPS), which back then was called the School of Continuing Education. I joined in January 1984, 36 years ago, hired by then dean, Harvey Stedman, to develop an international affairs program within the non-credit offerings at what later became SPS. I had no idea what continuing education was, but I was searching for a job. At that time, there was not that much interest in international affairs and I started to look at how I could introduce prospective students to “the international.” I initiated things like the Educated Traveler, consisting of concurrent programs on different countries four days a week, as well as travel programs with a cultural focus. When I came on board there was only one course, Spotlight on World Events, that I would categorize as falling within global affairs as we know it today. Through these initiatives, I began to slowly build up the international affairs program within SPS.

The fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Cold War gave me a boost because interest in international relations and global affairs suddenly grew. People began to be interested in how to do business with Eastern Europe, become familiar with different cultures, and so on. Hence, the courses in the international affairs program started to take off and by 1989 I introduced a certificate program consisting of 2 core courses (IR and IPE) and 4 electives. Gradually I began to see a need for a master’s program in international affairs, but one that would be different than those being offered by other institutions. I envisaged something practical, applied and interdisciplinary. Convincing others of the need was an uphill struggle, but the noncredit program gave us credibility and connections. With the help of our network, including adjunct faculty, we submitted a proposal for a master’s degree in Global Affairs in 2003. It was approved by the NYU Graduate Commission and the NY State in 2003 and we morphed into the Center for Global Affairs in fall of 2004, with an entering class of 69.

“At that time, I had a feeling that we were onto something new and exciting.” – Vera Jelinek

My interest in international affairs, however, preceded my coming here 36 years ago. I somehow always knew that aspects of international affairs were most important to me. I think the first paper that I wrote when I came to the United States – not speaking English and in a public junior high school in Brooklyn – was about the situation of Native Americans, delivering a very strong condemnation of what had been done to them. I was also part of the international affairs club in high school and participated in Model United Nations (UN) conferences in college, thinking at the time that the UN was the be-all and end-all of global governance. This interest in global affairs really came from my personal background and my experiences during World War Two.

What have the last 15 years at the CGA meant to you?

They have meant a lot and have given me tremendous fulfillment. No day is ever like the next. Most of it is very challenging. I can no longer be an expert in any one single field as I was when I completed my doctorate. I have to be a generalist, as I now have to have a finger on what is happening in the world, to identify trends, as well as to make decisions about whom to hire, to resolve problems, and to ensure that we are fulfilling the needs of our students and faculty.

The sense of fulfillment that I feel has come from seeing all of our students, at different stages, bloom and come into their own. Sometimes they enter the program and they have a concept of what they want to pursue, and then during the two or three years they are here, they hone their ideas about what they want to do. I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction from seeing that progress and achievement. I always say this at our annual end-of-year receptions and I really mean it.

Part of that fulfillment also comes from the alumni. You would be amazed to see the number of emails I receive sharing personal, as well as professional, news about their careers. Their enthusiasm for CGA is palpable and evident when they come back to CGA as mentors, or notify us of openings for current students at their places of work. I think their feelings reflect mine: that CGA is a special place, offers a very special type of education, and since its inception has been a pioneer in global affairs education. It is nothing like the traditional type of education I received where courses focused on comparative structures of government, treaties, case studies in international law, international economics, etc. That is not the kind of curriculum that we had in mind. We envisioned a constantly evolving program, which is practical, interdisciplinary, and applied. We stuck with this vision, and now we see it being replicated in other international programs, which is perhaps the best form of flattery. 15 years ago, it was truly groundbreaking.

We have 14 faculty members who have different personalities, expertise and ways of imparting knowledge but all are devoted, not only to teaching but to helping students grow. We also have very excellent and a dedicated administrative team. The real diversity of this job makes every day satisfying. It has enabled me to grow and learn something new every day.

What do you think is distinctive about the CGA community?

I think the CGA is a very warm community that provides an accepting and welcoming environment. I realize this when we welcome new students and applicants. They see that our doors are always open to them. This is a unique atmosphere, hundreds of years removed from the experience I had at university. I went to a city college in Queens and it was and felt different, but I was fortunate enough to have some incredible mentors who took me under their wing. Even my time at SAIS Bologna, where I studied abroad for a year, was different from what we have created at the CGA today.

At CGA, students respect each other, learn from each other, network together, and build lifelong friendships.

What three words would you use to describe the CGA?

Welcoming, innovative, and forward-looking.

What do you envision for CGA in the next 15 years?

Well, my greatest ambition for the near future is to help grow the program. I would like to reach around 350-400 students at any one time. Those sorts of numbers will give us a lot of strength here internally at NYU. To reach this number of students, we need to be able to provide more scholarship opportunities. My dream is to find someone who will endow the Center, allowing us to expand our scholarship offerings. I would like to avoid hearing that applicants would like to join the CGA because they like the education, community, and warmth of the Center, but will attend a competing institution because that institution can provide them with more financial support. I am happy with the CGA’s diversity, but having more scholarships available will enable us to be even more diverse. Scholarships would also help to support students in gaining crucial experiences abroad. Whether through Global Field Intensives (GFIs) or Applied Peacebuilding, experience on the ground in a foreign country is critical to the study of global affairs. In addition to growth, scholarships, and opportunities abroad, I would like to continue to maintain our reputation, and I would like to remain competitive. If all of this can be accomplished – growth in numbers, scholarships, diversity, and maintenance of our reputation and competitive edge—I think the next 15 years will be exciting and promising for the CGA.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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