Master's graduate focuses on improving support for refugees and host countries

Portrait of Nathalie Mokbel

Nathalie Mokbel.

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement.

After completing a bachelor’s and not one … not two … but now three master’s degrees, Nathalie Mokbel is showing no sign of slowing down. She has set her sights on her next adventure: becoming Dr. Nathalie Mokbel so she can support and educate the next generation of changemakers.

Her driving force? Her dedication to her home country of Lebanon and her desire to make a difference in the lives of refugees and the host countries who support them.

When she began diving into her research on refugee crises, she was shocked by how little literature she found on the subject of refugees and host countries. As she probed further, she realized a significant issue was that in many host countries, those who would benefit most from this research, frequently did not have the necessary technology, funding and other resources to gather and publish this crucial data. She felt this predicament spoke to a broader global issue of the disconnect between the developed world and many countries that struggle to provide access to basic needs like food, water and shelter for refugees.

Through her research in support of her goal of becoming an educator, Mokbel hopes to find and share creative solutions to improve the ability of countries to support refugees without crumbling under the weight of responsibility to displaced people.

Mokbel’s mentor and the degree program chair of the Global Technology and Development (GTD) program, Clinical Associate Professor Mary Jane Parmentier, said, “Nathalie has bridged several educational systems, from Lebanon to France, to the U.S., as well as academic disciplines, to excel in the interdisciplinary global development master's at ASU. Her research efforts have real potential to open new pathways of support for refugees and host countries.” 

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I have a bachelor’s in computer science and two master’s, one in international management and another one in entrepreneurship, which I completed in Lebanon and France. So when I came to the U.S., I was looking for a master’s program to further my studies and give me something fun to do. I found the Global Technology and Development program through the School for the Future of Innovation in Society. It interested me because I had never heard of anything like it before. It’s a good fit for me because it complements the degrees and experience I already have. I’m interested in refugees, and I’ve seen firsthand how Lebanon is affected by the Syrian refugee crisis. With my managerial background, I knew that having some knowledge about technology and development — about refugees more specifically — I thought it would be a nice combination to help me examine how Lebanon can strategically address the Syrian refugee crisis. In this way, I am able to combine the management spirit with my desire to improve the situation for refugees and my close ties with Lebanon. It was as if I had found the missing puzzle piece I was looking for.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: There is a lot of literature out there, but shockingly very little of it deals with refugees, specifically regarding their impact on the host countries. You would think that, given the impact and scale of the Syrian refugee crisis, or really any refugee crisis, people would be interested in writing papers about this subject. But host countries in which these crises are occurring are typically poor and vulnerable as well, so they don’t have the ability to do this critical research. Even though they would be the entity with the most stake in gathering data and exploring this subject further, they do not have the resources or funding for it. Seeing this, I was kind of thinking, “Wow, what did I get myself into?” but at the same time, it’s the best kind of motivation knowing that there is a desperate need for this research, and I’m excited to be able to bring something new to the table.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I moved to Arizona because I got married and my husband lived here. And I chose ASU because it is by far the top university in the area. Being number one in innovation is really the main reason why I picked this over an online program or any other school. It is number one in innovation, it has the GTD program, and I wanted something that was interdisciplinary in nature. ASU and SFIS checked all of those boxes. The messages in ASU’s charter about catalyzing social change by being connected to social needs and connecting and giving back to communities through mutually beneficial partnerships really stood out to me. When I read the mission statement in the charter, I felt aligned with it. I believe in it, and therefore this was my first and only choice. A big part of what I am doing with my thesis is focusing on improving conditions in my home country of Lebanon. To me, this is a way I can give back to my community, even though I live abroad now.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Dr. Gary Grossman. He studies the Middle East, so we had a lot in common, and I was able to develop my interests further through his mentorship. In addition, when I first started the program, Mary Jane Parmentier gave me a very clear idea about what the GTD program is all about and what other students have achieved after graduating. She helped me understand the importance of the impact of the GTD program, how I fit in and how it would work for me. She also gave me the idea of studying the refugee crisis. At first, I wasn’t quite sure what the link was between global technology and development and refugees, but as Dr. Parmentier and I discussed the topic further, I developed a good idea of how the two work together. She was the reason why I started the program with this much motivation.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: They have to really believe in what they do, they have to have a goal, and most importantly, they have to apply meaning to their studies. What matters is what we do with the degree when we leave here. If you truly believe in the work you are doing and the topic you are studying — if it really means something to you — then you are going to truly enjoy your time here. You can have fun and grow in an environment where it’s about self-satisfaction more than it is about just getting a grade. It’s the personal achievement that makes it worthwhile. I’m not going to completely eliminate the refugee crisis, but even being able to make a 0.01% improvement to the lives of refugees and the host countries is enough for me.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: Hayden Library. The universities I went to in the past didn’t really have big libraries, so for me, that was my first experience in a “real” library. I spent a lot of time there, but it was a fun experience. You feel very connected to the community on campus by being surrounded by other students, but in a way, you also get to be in your own world. Plus you have access to all of the resources the library has to offer.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I know that I want to continue my studies and pursue a PhD. I still want to focus on my research with refugees but take it a step further. I also used to teach business courses in Lebanon, and I still love teaching, so I’m probably going to go the academic route.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I think I would use it to invest in host countries. Many only focus on the issues of the refugees themselves and often neglect to consider the impact on the countries in which displaced people are taking refuge. These are typically neighboring countries that unfortunately are often also weak in infrastructure. So what happens is that instead of solving problems, the problems just get moved around to different countries that cannot handle the sudden population increase.

Written by Madelyn Nelson

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