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- CSS Staff Feature: Melissa Eljamal
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As Chief Administrator at the Center for Social Solutions, Melissa Eljamal is passionate about mentorship, accessibility, and diversity in higher education. Her rich experiences of working abroad and being a first-generation, non-traditional master’s student help shape the work that she does today in managing a multitude of academic units across the university.
For the first six years of her professional career, Melissa worked abroad in Germany where she developed a strong interest in cross-cultural exchange and higher education. She held administrative roles in Germany, including at an international professional exchange organization and as a business manager for a software company which were critical for both her professional and personal development.
“Throughout all my work experience in Germany, I was interacting with people who were different from myself and I learned adaptability, observation, and listening and also developed my curiosity. These skills were critical in helping me to not merely accept or tolerate others, but to embrace and further develop my understanding of those unlike me,” Melissa said.
Interacting with people from different viewpoints encouraged Melissa to reflect on some of her own.
“Personally, I was confronted with the fact that Americans (or perhaps more specifically, the American government) were not liked universally by the world. I was exposed to other points of view that helped me take a closer look at my own values and thoughts about what it means to me to be an American,” Melissa reflected.
“I spent a large part of my time with Palestinian students, which helped me to reframe my experience growing up as an American Jew. First of all, I confronted my own implicit biases about the Arab world. My earlier unquestioning consumption of news resulted in my limited view that the Arab people were desert nomads, oil sheiks, or terrorists. My day-to-day interaction with Arabs in Germany helped me to understand the vast cultural differences within the Arab world, as well develop a deep connection to Palestinian culture and values, and broader knowledge about their historical and current suffering related to the founding of a Zionist state,” Melissa explained.
Multicultural interactions, particularly during her time as a program assistant in an international exchange program, sparked Melissa’s interests in higher education.
“I loved helping adults learn and, more specifically, I wanted to facilitate greater understanding of other cultures by being embedded in those cultures,” Melissa said.
Her passion for cross-cultural education drew Melissa to pursue a Master’s in Higher Education at the University of Michigan. Her master’s practicum was spent in the International Center doing cultural orientation programming for incoming international students, advising U.S. students planning to study and work abroad, and advocating for international students as they processed health insurance claims.
She then continued on at U-M College or Engineering where she taught cross-cultural training modules, working with departments to make it easier for engineering students to spend a semester abroad and collaborating with faculty to solidify international partnerships.
Melissa’s own educational experiences have helped shape how she approaches her work and her commitment to mentorship and accessibility in higher education. As a first-generation student and a non-traditional master’s student herself, she understands the barriers that students can face.
“I know that I missed out on many undergraduate opportunities because I didn’t understand the significance of their later value and did not have a mentor to guide and encourage me to apply for awards that would have allowed me to follow my cross-cultural interests. In graduate school I had no understanding of how to manage a heavier curricular load or how to develop networks within the University to help me plan for a career in higher education. For this reason, I volunteer frequently at the University for staff mentoring programs, and I am committed to mentoring (in a more informal way) students who are trying to find their way both within college and after graduation.”
Melissa’s interests and experiences in higher education, public engagement, and management ultimately drew her to the Center for Social Solutions.
“When I read about the mission of the Center and assessed its possibility for broad impact, I knew that I wanted to sign on as Chief Administrator. Research that the general public can access and understand is what drives change and I know that the Center can be instrumental in this capacity,” Melissa said.
At the Center, Melissa holds many responsibilities including budget and facilities, finance, staff and faculty HR, and advancement. She also oversees the Academic Leadership Institute which aims to increase the representation of rising leaders committed to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, including faculty of color, on track to becoming future presidents and provosts.
In addition to working at the Center, Melissa serves as Chief Administrator for Organizational Studies and the Barger Leadership Institute. She greatly enjoys the distinct research, academic, and co-curricular missions that the center and these other units provide. In particular, she enjoys working with newer units that focus less on traditional academic hierarchy.
“I like the idea of helping units to develop and grow. New units allow the ability to forge our own agendas without the burden of any past priorities. They can inspire curiosity as we benchmark units with similar activities to assess what works well and does not, providing us with a better chance for doing more informed work,” Melissa explained.
Working with smaller units also means being able to be better connected to colleagues and develop stronger relationships.
“This allows me to develop meaningful relationships with my colleagues. I like to focus on their well-being as professionals, helping them to forge their careers in a way that they continue to find meaning in what they do. This mentoring piece has become the most valued part of my work as I look toward the final years of my professional life at the U-M,” Melissa said.
Melissa carries on her passion for mentorship and helping others grow outside of work by being an advocate/cross-cultural mentor to international high school exchange students coming to live in Ann Arbor. In her free time, she also enjoys gardening, reading, sewing, traveling, and supporting her children in their academic pursuits.
Melissa is excited to continue developing her interests in change management and strategic planning through her work at the Center for Social Solutions and other LSA units. She hopes to eventually reintegrate her interests in cross-cultural exchange going forward as well.
“I am very interested in returning to my work associated with cross-cultural education, perhaps directing an international programs unit or working with immigrant populations,” Melissa said.