Youssef Cherif, GSAS ‘09, is a political analyst, thinker and writer specializing in North African affairs. He’s been widely published and quoted in think tanks and media outlets including Al Jazeera English, France 24, BBC, and the Atlantic Council. He is also the director of the Columbia Global Center in Tunis where he organizes public events, connects Columbia University affiliates with scholars, students, and institutions in the region including North and West Africa.
Youssef holds a Chevening Master of Arts in International Relations from the Department of War Studies of King's College London, and a Fulbright Master of Arts in Classical Studies from Columbia University, where he first came as a Visiting Scholar.
Our Mika Aly sat down with him for an Alumni Spotlight interview.
Can you share a little bit on your journey to Columbia?
While I was enrolled at the American University in Beirut, I got a scholarship to come to Columbia as a Visiting Scholar. When I first stepped foot on the Columbia University campus, I said to myself, “This is where I want to finish my studies”. Shortly thereafter, I applied for a Fulbright Scholarship and in 2009 I got my Master’s in Classical Studies from Columbia, my dream university.
When you move to the other side of the Atlantic and you look at your region from so far away, you gain a different perspective. Being at Columbia and the U.S. in general allowed me to see how American- Arab relations work and that contributed to a deeper understanding of the region.
Tell us a little about your journey after graduating from Columbia?
As a student at Columbia, I started writing a political blog so when I returned to Tunisia for a job, I was more keen to work in political science than to continue with classical studies. One problem: Tunis was still under a dictatorship.
I got a few jobs here and there, and then the Arab Spring happened. Excitedly, I joined international organizations affiliated with the Carter Center and the United Nations. All of a sudden, there was an outpouring of interest in my Columbia blogs from media outlets and think tanks and I started publishing more regularly.
One thing led to another, and when Columbia was considering setting up a global Center in Tunis, it was the perfect fit for me. Since then I’ve been back with Columbia, now as a staff member and not a student.
To what extent does your education from Columbia play a role in your life today?
The freedom of expression and education given to me as a student remains with me today and helped make me who I am. The Columbia network helped connect me to other people, which was really helpful in my life. So, these two things, the knowledge and the network-- are the most important things I carry from Columbia.
Can you share a memory from your time as a student at Columbia?
I remember in Ramadan when we used to go to Queens as a group of Arabs to experience Ramadan in a friendly and familiar atmosphere. We also participated in demonstrations on campus for causes that were important to Arabs in general. That’s part of the formation of most Arab students at Columbia who want to be fully immersed in the MENA atmosphere at Columbia University.
What advice do you have for future Arab Alumni or current Arab Alumni for life post-graduation?
Don’t regret anything you did at Columbia, think of all the moments you had at Columbia as incredibly formative. You can build on all that to build a better person out of yourself.
Being part of the Columbia network is another citizenship and it's our duty to contribute and hold the flag of Columbia and make Columbia a better place – to keep strengthening the University that we love.
The network you make at Columbia will be with you forever. It’s important to mingle with each other as Arabs but also just as important to mingle with people from all over the world and keep that network with you for the future because it will be helpful sooner or later.
What would you like to see come out of the newly-established CAAA?
The CAAA is long overdue and I'm glad I was a part of helping achieve this milestone. It’s good to be here as an association that knows what concerns Arabs and actually organizes more events, activities, or actions that are of direct concern. Now, the voices of the Columbia Arab Alumni will not be heard at Columbia only but globally.
As graduates of Columbia, we are in different areas or fields but contributing in one way or another in advancing the world. Finally, it’s important for the CAAA to continuously improve and enrich the Columbia Alumni Association so it’s also very important for the CAA and the CAAA to work together and I think that way we can engage as many people as possible.
Have a Columbia Arab Alumni or affiliate whose story should be heard? Nominate them today!