#CGAat15 Faculty Interview Series: Sylvia Maier

This year, The Center for Global Affairs (CGA) celebrates its 15th Anniversary. To mark this occasion, the Global Affairs Review (GAR) sat down with Professor Sylvia Maier, to discuss her CGA journey and experience. Dr. Maier directs the M.S. in Global Affairs Concentration in Global Gender Studies, the Global Field Intensive to the United Arab Emirates, and serves as faculty adviser to the MSGA Gender Working Group. Sylvia’s principal fields of interest and expertise are women’s rights in the Middle East, South Central Asia, and the Gulf States, with a particular focus on the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, and Iraqi Kurdistan, where she has taught and conducted extensive field research. Sylvia’s new research project, Making Cities Work for Women, is a comparative study of feminist urbanism in global cities—Berlin, Dubai, Vienna, New York—and explores in what ways feminist activists are influencing cities’ urban planning and design processes to reflect the needs, preferences, and lived realities of urban women. Complementing her academic work, Sylvia is the co-founder and deputy editor-in-chief of Women Across Frontiers, a digital women’s rights magazine, and serves as Director of Education Programs as well as on the board of The Peace Project, Inc. 

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

Professor Maier: I joined New York University (NYU) in 2007, coming from the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, where I had been teaching courses in International Law, Ethics, American Government, European Politics, and Democracy Studies, since 2001. After six years, I was ready for a new adventure, and started as a Faculty Fellow at NYU’s  Center for European and Mediteranean Studies (CEMS).  I had many wonderful conversations with our dean, Vera Jelinek, who was interested in me joining the CGA, but, sadly, there was no full-time faculty position available at the time, so I began teaching international law as an adjunct, while remaining full-time at CEMS, for four years. Then, in 2011, a faculty position opened up, and I moved to the CGA full-time. It was the best professional decision I have ever made.

What have the last 12 years at CGA meant to you?

Being at CGA is incredibly inspiring and exciting. As an educator, I find seeing people students blossom to be one of the most satisfying things. In terms of personal growth,  I learn so much from students and their different perspectives every day, which also challenges my own beliefs, which is good! Since CGA’s programs are not purely academic, it has allowed me to take my Ivy Tower research into the real world, such as teaching at the American University in Afghanistan, and traveling frequently to the United Arab Emirates for my own research or to lead our Global Field Intensives (GFIs). I’ve also been able to travel professionally for research projects, such as to Peru with Dr Rudbeck, for our project on the impact of the biotrade certification of cocoa on food security and gender equality in the cooperativas. I also just received a GRI grant to conduct research on feminist urbanism at NYU Berlin. Very excited.

I’ve also been delighted to witness how CGA developed from being a boutique program, with a few dozen students, to a much larger program with 1,500plus alumni and 8 concentrations. Our student body has also changed greatly over the years. At the beginning, it was primarily mid-level professionals who joined the program at the beginning, now, the student body is much younger –the average age of our students is 28 (as of this year).  Also, many of our students are first generation college students from all over the world who truly embrace the opportunities available to them. Some CGA students even married each other, so CGA has even been a matchmaking service (ha!).

In 2015, we launched our gender concentration, which had been a specialization since 2011. I am absolutely thrilled and delighted that we have been able to do that and to see the success of our alumnae and alumni are now working for UN Women and NGOs, such as the IRC, IWHC, Save the Children, IIE, and many others, to promote a more gender just and equitable world. 

What do you think is distinctive about the CGA community?

I think it is our diversity in terms of the backgrounds of our students, their global orientation, their commitment to becoming global citizens and making the world a better place. Unlike in other departments, the students really want to work in “the field”, so to speak, and want to take an active role in making a more fair, just, and equitable world.  The CGA is very much practitioner-oriented, which makes it unique among our peer institutions. I do think our applied research and learning approach is our greatest strength.

I’m also impressed by the fact that our students are so innovative and entrepreneurial; they are active creative problem solvers by thinking outside the box. Since CGA is so diverse, we bring different experiences to the table which is so important because our world is complex, and the world’s problems cannot be solved linearly anymore.  In a way, CGA is the incubator.

What three words would you use to describe the CGA?

Innovative, global and vibrant. It is humming with ideas; there is so much passion in this building.

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

When I look back to when I started in 2007 at NYU, the world was a completely different place. That is not nostalgia, but recognizing that so much has changed, such as the way we communicate, how the 2008-2009 economic crisis has brought about a greater awareness of global inequality, and the explosion of populism around the world. Think of how profoundly social media has changed how we interact as human beings and groups. Also, the global trend towards renationalization, the appalling backlash against women’s rights and globalization, and, of course, the so-called migration crisis – which is only a crisis because we have chosen to make it one; wealthy countries have the ability to take people in. The world and the challenges we face have become much more complex, and we must and will be prepared for it.

In the next 15 years, new global challenges will emerge, the CGA will grow and our concentrations will proactively reflect these changes. I also think in all areas of domestic and international policy there will be a greater emphasis on the promotion of gender equality as smart politics. As I see it, one of our focus points needs to be resisting right-wing populists in power and conservatives around the world–the religious, ethnic, and racialized patriarchy, really–who are determined to roll back our rights.

Within our program, I want to demonstrate how pervasive and detrimental gender inequality is, and thus how important adding a gender lens to all the fields we work in, is. For example, we are witnessing a spike in low, mid, and high-intensity conflicts that disproportionately affect women, so we need to ensure that women are part of the mediation and negotiation teams. Also, women play a big role in preventative, adaptive and mitigative measures against  climate change, which itself has become a driver for climate migration, again the majority of whom are women. So gender needs to be mainstreamed into all policies and programs related to climate change. I could go on. The core message is that gender dividends are huge, so gender equality is smart politics.

I think the next 15 years are going to be very exciting. We have added a new degree in Conflict, Security,  and Cybercrime, specializations in data analytics, global risk, and the UN, and so CGA is prepared to educate the next generations of students to be global citizens as well as effective changemakers.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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