The 10th Anniversary Spotlight Series highlights alumni, faculty, students and friends of the Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies who are agents of change in their communities and careers and have contributed to the vibrancy of the Institute.
Nick Shafer, Class of ’19, an alumni of the Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies’ Undergraduate Fellowship, graduated from UC Berkeley with a double B.A. in Anthropology and Arabic Language and Minors in Public Policy and Global Studies. In 2019, he studied at the Qasid Arabic Institute in Amman, Jordan as a Boren Scholar. Shafer then founded Global Community College Transfers, a non-profit dedicated to increasing transfer student representation in scholarships and fellowships. He is currently working at USAID as a John Gardner Public Service Fellow in the Middle East Bureau. Shafer will spend the summer 2021 as a Fulbright scholar in Morocco. In the fall, he will travel to the U.K. to begin his graduate education as a Marshall Scholar.
Can you tell me a little bit about what you’ve been up to since graduating from Cal?
After graduating, I was funded through the Boren Scholarship to move to Amman, Jordan. I did a very intensive Arabic program called the Center for Arabic Studies Abroad, which meant studying for eight hours a day, five days a week. It was brutal, but really great. I was also able to travel around Jordan on the weekends. When the pandemic hit, my time was cut short and I returned home to the United States.
Like many people during that time, I was in a whirlwind trying to figure out what I was going to do next. Then last summer, I was awarded the John Gardner Fellowship through the Institute for Governmental Studies at Berkeley. Through that fellowship I began work at USAID in the Middle East Bureau, which is where I am currently working.
You recently founded a non-profit organization, Global Community College Transfers. Could you tell me a little about why?
I transferred to Bereley from community college and had many friends who did the same. In some ways, transfer students are playing catch-up to traditional students. There is a knowledge barrier to global education opportunities, like the Critical Language Scholarship or Fulbright, that exists for transfer students and others from nontraditional educational backgrounds — and that doesn’t have to be the case. When my friends and I began to receive nationally competitive scholarships, we felt a moral and social impetus to share the knowledge of what it took to get there. We began to ask ourselves, “How do you help people build their own luck when they feel like they don’t have access to an opportunity? Or when they feel like this is something that’s impossibly closed to them?” We founded the nonprofit in an effort to expand access to transfers, older nontraditional students, low-income students, and first generation students.
Do you have any fond memories from your time at the Helen Diller Institute? How did your experience as an undergraduate fellow shape you?
I deeply benefited from my time as a fellow. Rebecca (the Institute’s Executive Director) created such a fantastic space for all of us. I remember specifically that when I was a new fellow, she and I got coffee at Café Zeb and chatted for over an hour. It felt so great to be seen and supported by her. A year later when I was a senior and applying to opportunities, Rebecca was there supporting me and talking me through the choices I was considering. Having that type of support is extremely valuable and rare, especially at a place like Berkeley where it’s very easy to get lost in the flurry.
The Institute provided me with a strong community of people who had similar interests to my own. Getting to know the other fellows was a great experience, and I really enjoyed the space for nuanced discussion about Israel and Jewish law topics that we would often have in our meetings. I really appreciated the breadth of speakers we were able to learn from. The Institute did a really good job at holding an open space for all of us to be able to engage and learn about those topics.
Finally, do you have any advice for undergraduates?
Don’t vote yourself out of the equation. It’s never too late to reach for an opportunity, even if you don’t recognize the value that you bring to the table. If you’ve overcome an obstacle, if you’ve ever actually dealt with real life in some capacity — that’s not a detriment. It makes you a more well-rounded person and makes you resilient, and that resiliency is ultimately what interviewers and scholarship advisors are looking for. Don’t tell yourself no before they do.
Also, remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. The United States has a really toxic work culture that really pushes us to just go! go! go! without taking any time for ourselves. It’s very important to pause and to know when to say no. Sit with yourself and ask yourself what it is that lights you up. What is that thing that actually makes you passionate? What is the class that you’ve taken that you’re the most excited about? What is the internship you’ve done that you’ve enjoyed the most? Who are the people in your life that most make you feel at home? Structure what you apply to around that core.
The Helen Diller Institute houses two core programs, the Program on Israel Studies, a nationally-recognized initiative for the study of Israel, and the Program on Jewish Law, Thought and Identity, the only program of its type in the western United States.
Together the Institute’s programs promote student and faculty engagement by developing opportunities for research, programming, and mentorship; by bringing visiting faculty and scholars to UC Berkeley; and by organizing colloquia, programs, and classes to strengthen academic inquiry and discourse across the Berkeley campus.
The Institute was launched in 2011, and draws its 22-member faculty committee from Political Science, Sociology, Economics, History, Jewish Studies, Music, as well as the Schools of Law, Journalism, and Business.