Alum-spiration: “The corona crisis can be seen as an opportunity for transformation”

Emilia Roig explains why challenging times can turn into a chance to be bold and creative.

Dr. Emilia Roig, Founder and Executive Director of the Berlin-based Center for Intersectional Justice (CIJ), is a Hertie School MPP 2009 graduate. The center combats intersecting forms of inequality and discrimination in Europe. A faculty member of the Social Justice Study Abroad Program of DePaul University of Chicago, she has taught graduate and post-graduate courses on Intersectionality Theory, Postcolonial Studies, Critical Race Theory and International and European Law. From 2007 to 2010, Emilia worked extensively on human rights issues at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Tanzania and Uganda, at the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) in Cambodia, and at Amnesty International in Germany. She holds a PhD in political science, a Master of Public Policy and an MBA from the Humboldt University of Berlin, the Hertie School and Jean Moulin University of Lyon. She is Jury member of the German Non-Fiction Book Prize 2020 and was also in the Jury of the "25 Women Award" of Edition F in 2019. In the same year, she was appointed as external expert at the European Commission in 2019.

You graduated from the Hertie School during the global financial crisis. What were the main challenges you had to face?

I graduated in 2010 and was completing a professional year in Cambodia at the GIZ from 2008 to 2009. Since I was enrolled at Hertie with a full tuition waiver and a scholarship for living expenses, I was in a very privileged position. As far as I remember, I didn’t have to face any challenges at all, materially speaking. I did, however, worry about my future and had worst-case scenarios running in my head about not finding a job after graduation and having to move back to my mother’s place and spending the whole day in pyjamas with no plans ahead.

Do you have any advice for graduates searching for a job during a global crisis? How can they navigate the job market?

My aunt always told me: worrying means suffering twice. I can’t express how much this advice has helped me through tough times. Not that I stopped worrying once and for all, but I learned the hard way that the worries we have in anticipation of a situation never materialise. Bad things happen, yes. But usually not the way we had anticipated. The best advice I can give you is to let go and trust that everything will turn out for the best. I know that this advice can sound passive and may be difficult to follow for high-achieving young people, but letting go is actually a very hard and courageous thing to do. It requires a good deal of humility to accept that we cannot control everything. Letting go is more powerful than trying to control something that cannot be controlled. Letting go doesn’t mean giving up: on the contrary, it means trusting the process and having faith in the future. 

What are the most important skills to highlight in an application?

You should remain as authentic as possible. Do not try to impress or sell something that you are not. A good employer will not try to change you and carve you into someone who you are not. They will recognize and amplify your strengths and help you grow professionally and personally. Think about what you can do best, what brings you joy and what you wish to grow in yourself: highlight these.

Do you have any tips on how to deal with setbacks?

Setbacks always carry a message and a lesson. In a way, they are blessings in disguise. Acceptance is important, but also giving space for negative emotions triggered by the setback. It’s okay to feel depressed for a while and to embrace feelings of sadness, hopelessness and fear without wanting to push them away or feeling guilty about them. The most challenging part, however, is to not remain fixed on negative thoughts and to avoid spiralling down. Try to not overthink and be patient. Try to look around and see which doors are hidden behind the one door that closed and on which you tend to focus all your attention.

Emilia's post-it mantra

In what way was the Hertie School network beneficial to you during your job search?

The Hertie network has been of tremendous help during my job search, in ways that I hadn’t thought it would. Keep in touch, let people know what your dream job would be, and keep your ears and eyes open. Look for coincidences and seize opportunities, even if they don’t look like it.

I learned one important thing about networks: knowing a few people in many different networks is better than knowing everyone in a single network. Diversifying and expanding your networks will increase your reach and widen your opportunities. What was particularly helpful during the founding process of the Center for Intersectional Justice was the width of the various networks I activated, not necessarily their depth. It was enough to know a few people from the academic field, from European institutions, from activist circles, from policymaking spheres and from the funding scene. Having a lot of contacts and being well-known in the academia, but knowing no one in policymaking and grant-making institutions would have been less helpful.

From your current standpoint, how did the difficult situation after your graduation prepare you for the career you pursued? Do you have pearls of wisdom you would like to share?

I don’t think we should compare the 2008 financial crisis with the current corona crisis. The impact, implications, conditions, reach and scope of the current crisis are and will be unprecedented. Many of us, including the most privileged of our parents’ generation, have never experienced anything comparable in our lifetime. The corona crisis can be seen as a portal, as an opportunity for deep transformation. But like in any transformation process, there is pain and discomfort involved.

Deepak Chopra says that “all great changes are preceded by chaos”. If the pain, discomfort and chaos are accepted as part of the process, it leaves space for imagination and creativity. Choosing a career in the midst of the corona crisis is not necessarily a bad thing. Institutions will be reshuffled, some will be dismantled, entire fields will be created, others will die – a new world is emerging. There’s tremendous opportunity in this, but the challenge is to not hold on to what we know and feel safe and comfortable with. It’s the chance to imagine and be bold and creative. Take up your space in this new world and be unapologetic and clear about what you want and what you no longer want. Arundhati Roy wrote, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” We are so privileged to live in this moment.

A meme you think best encapsulates looking for a job in a tough and challenging climate

In this series, Hertie School alumni speak about what it was like to enter the job market around the time of the 2008/09 financial crisis, offering words of wisdom to the Class of 2020, which is facing similar challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic.