Saifeldeen Zihiri

Jeannette K. Watson Fellow 2019

Internships

America Needs You

Southern Poverty Law Center

West Africa Centre for Counter-Extremism

Follow Saifeldeen's journey

Headshot photo of Saif in a blue sweater

My Watson journey began at the end of a difficult freshman year. I’d enrolled in pre-med courses out of a desire to help people and find a financially stable career, but I was really struggling; it just didn’t feel like a good fit for me. I wanted a broader engagement with the world, but I didn’t know where to begin until a fateful discussion in my guidance counselor’s office led me to apply for a Watson Fellowship.  

Year one Internship

America Needs You

New York, NY

In my first summer, I interned with America Needs You, a nonprofit that supports first-generation college students through mentorship programs and intensive career development. Only 11% of first-generation students in the USA manage to complete a four-year degree, and they face enormous social and financial pressures—but so did an organization trying to support them. Working with ANY opened my eyes to how much energy nonprofits have to devote to simply staying afloat and making the public aware of their efforts, and my internship was a crash course in grant writing and social media outreach, skills I’d never have developed in medical school. But my favorite parts of the summer were the weekly workshops with my cohort of new Watson fellows. We were all from vastly different backgrounds and viewpoints, all trying to figure out who we wanted to be in the world.

New York, NY
Group of students standing in front of workshop posters
“My favorite parts of the summer were the weekly workshops with my cohort of new Watson fellows.”

Year two Internship

Southern Poverty Law Center

The second summer was when things really opened up. Our first-year internships were assigned to us, but now we were encouraged to seek out our own, and I knew I wanted to work with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project. I was fascinated by their investigations of nationalist and anti-immigrant groups, so I sent them an email with the subject line FULLY FUNDED WATSON INTERN—and they said yes. The months that followed were some of the most intense and rewarding of my life, as I sat at a desk in the SPLC’s Atlanta office and immersed myself in the online worlds and financial filings of organizations dedicated to promoting warped visions of human society in general and the United States in particular. It was difficult material to engage with at times, and very insidious; one co-worker wisely advised me to be careful not to eat while viewing propaganda videos, lest I start associating my favorite foods with hate groups. But I was completely absorbed by the work and surrounded by brilliant people who shared my interests, and I also found the subject for my honors thesis. Though the organizations we were studying seemed bizarre at first, the more I came to understand them, the more I saw how they thrived on basic human needs for meaning, acceptance, and community.

Year three Internship

West Africa Centre for Counter-Extremism

The pliability of the human psyche was very much on my mind in my last internship with the West Africa Centre for Counter-Extremism, a small, non-governmental organization based in Ghana whose core belief is that no one is immune to radical ideas. I was curious to see what fighting extremism meant outside the US, and it was inspiring to see a small NGO taking a serious role in protecting national security by tracking violent events across West Africa and reaching out to former members of extremist groups. Like my first summer at ANY, much of my work involved managing and maintaining the Centre’s social media accounts—but the most surprising parts of the internship came through conversations with colleagues and friends about the critical role of forgiveness. While we were discussing the extremist actions of various groups, there was always an understanding that throwing these people into the arms of the state could be ineffective. I had to think hard about the concepts of retribution and punishment that were ingrained in me. In the end, my journey as a Watson fellow helped me toward the broader view I’d been seeking. It let me step outside the narrow boundaries of what had seemed like ‘acceptable’ careers—doctor, lawyer, engineer—to find a path in line with my values, interests, and curiosity. I’m still learning about what shape that path will take, but the distress I felt as an unhappy freshman is long gone.

Saif standing outside his office in Ghana with several colleagues
“In the end, my journey as a Watson fellow helped me toward the broader view I’d been seeking. It let me step outside the narrow boundaries of what had seemed like ‘acceptable’ careers—doctor, lawyer, engineer—to find a path in line with my values, interests, and curiosity. ”

Where they are today

Henry Luce Scholar | Seoul, South Korea

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