Heba F. El-Shazli: When a ‘Second Career’ Is a Primary Calling

The El-Shazli family was packed for a move to Washington, D.C., in 1967 where Heba F. El-Shazli’s father was to be stationed as a diplomat in the Egyptian embassy. But the U.S.’s support for Israel in the Arab-Israeli War of that year caused the embassy to be shut down; the El-Shazlis went to London instead. Another possible move to the U.S. was stymied by a subsequent war in 1973.

In fact, the family did not make it to the U.S. until 1975, when relations resumed and the embassy reopened.

“My life has very much been governed by wars,” said El-Shazli, explaining the circuitous route she took to her present position as an assistant professor of political science at the Schar School of Policy and Government, specializing in Middle East studies.

While she says teaching is a calling for her, it comes as a second career after a long stint as a practitioner in the field of “promoting democracy across the Middle East,” she said, adding with a laugh, “boy, did I do a great job.”

El-Shazli entered the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in 1978, at the age of 15. “My parents hoped I was going to be a banker or a diplomat,” she said. As a senior in college, and inspired by the Solidarity movement in Poland, she began working with the AFL-CIO’s international department in the U.S.

“There was a movement in Poland that was standing up to the Communist Party and saying ‘we want freedom of association, we want the right to organize, and the right to bargain collectively,’” she said.

Working with workers, she discovered, was key to influencing national policy, not just in the U.S. and Poland, but elsewhere, including the Middle East. “Workers don’t care about your ethnicity or your skin color or your religion,” she said. “They care about the workplace.”

She was hired first by the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center and then the National Democratic Institute, a core grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, to “plant seeds,” she said, in Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, and other countries.

After 28 years, she was awarded a fellowship to teach at the Virginia Military Institute and discovered an affinity for sharing knowledge. A master’s degree from Georgetown University and a PhD from Virginia Tech fulfilled her academic credentials, and she was enlisted to come to the Schar School in 2013 by professors she knew during her career as a practitioner, Peter Mandaville and Bassam Haddad, directors of the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University. She is now an affiliate faculty of the center.

“She has been a powerhouse in the classroom, in all senses of the word,” said Haddad. “Knowledgeable, empowering, impeccably dedicated, and focused on the pedagogical needs of our students. We cannot ask for more devotion to both the students and the profession in the classroom.”

In 2016, El-Shazli received the Schar School’s Outstanding Teacher Award as well as the Global Excellence “Rookie of the Year Award” for leadership in the study abroad program at Mason.

“I love it,” she says of her burgeoning second career. “I am here to teach and I can’t wait to get up every morning and get to the classroom. I’m having a great time.”