Changing careers for the love of poetry

Once a civil engineer, Zein El-Amine made a career switch 5 years ago

By Marlena Chertock

First published in The Writers’ Bloc.

Image result for zein el-amine
Zein El-Amine started a poetry career after working as a civil engineer for 20 years.

Five years ago one poetry professor in the University of Maryland’s Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House discussed paint colors for a fraternity bathroom for 15 minutes with his Residential Facilities supervisor.

“All I could think was do I want to spend my time doing this?” said Zein El-Amine, who worked in Residential Facilities from 2004 to 2007 and was a project manager and civil engineer for about 20 years. “The culture in Residential Facilities was becoming oppressive or it was always oppressive and I just didn’t notice it.”

He knew then he needed to change his career.

Within one month in 2007, through what he called luck and good timing, El-Amine began a master’s degree in creative writing at this university and became an assistant director and poetry instructor for the Writers’ House living and learning program. He received his master’s in creative writing in 2010.

El-Amine chose to give up his salary to become a student for three years.

“It wasn’t much of a transition when you start doing something you were meant to do, something that you’ve always loved,” said El-Amine, who has been writing short stories and poems since he was 16. “Friends of mine who had been away for a few weeks left me as an engineer and all of a sudden I’m about to start teaching poetry and enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts in poetry.”

Most people aren’t courageous enough to take such a risk, said English professor Michael Collier, who helped him get into the program.

Switching careers is an exception rather than a rule, according to Collier. More often people keep their day jobs and take up hobbies to have an outlet or release.

“You have to imagine he must have gone through a kind of struggle,” Collier said. “It’s hard for people to change their lives. But clearly there was something pushing him from the inside.”

El-Amine had an informational interview in 2007 with Writers’ House director Johnna Schmidt, whom he’d shared the stage with at a coffeehouse poetry reading down the street.

Schmidt sent El-Amine to Collier, who read over his 12 poems in one night. Collier also told El-Amine about the assistant director position, which he worked as while earning his graduate degree.

“[Collier] is one of the most nurturing people I’ve met,” El-Amine said. “Without him I wouldn’t be teaching, wouldn’t be writing what I write now and wouldn’t have an MFA.”

But Collier said he didn’t help El-Amine more than answer questions about the program and explain how to put together a writing portfolio. El-Amine was a strong candidate on his own.

Even before he became a professor, El-Amine was teaching a creative writing workshop in 2005 in the Art and Learning Center in the Adele H. Stamp Student Union. He taught the workshop for three years.

It’s fitting that El-Amine switched careers, according to senior Mina Anderson, who took his Ireland study abroad and Global Literature and Social Change courses.

“You can tell right away in conversation that he lives and breathes this stuff,” she said. “Every story he recounted in casual conversation had the feel of an epic.”

El-Amine is a rare breed of professor who is approachable and invested in his students, Anderson said.

While he was growing up friends and family members often told El-Amine he should teach.

“I wasn’t an engineer; my father forced me into it,” said El-Amine, who studied civil engineering at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Saudi Arabia in 1987. “It’s normal in my culture and many cultures; you go into the sciences.”

He managed projects at Dulles and Reagan National airports and this university, according to the university’s professional writing program website.

It would be ideal if more professors worked in other jobs before teaching because it grounds them in the world, according to Collier.

“[El-Amine] brings a tremendous amount of experience different from an academic setting,” he said. “He’s in touch with the world that most people live in. He’s able to speak in a very practical way about how art and literature relate to our lives.”

Poetry has always been a part of El-Amine’s life. His father recited poems on rides to the beach and knows 100 poems by heart, even at 80 years old, he said.  Several men and boys in his village would do Zajal, or slam poetry battles, reciting lines and verses in a sort of competition, before televisions became popular.

“Poetry was passed on orally in [my father’s] generation,” he said. “You’d be sitting around and someone would begin reciting a poem, just absentmindedly.”

When he’s not teaching, El-Amine writes political essays and speaks at universities and other venues about Lebanese and the Arab issues and other topics.  He speaks to a group of graduating teachers about the immigrant experience and trends in education at George Washington University every year.

“[He] is very civic-minded and active in the D.C. community,” said Jesse Freeman, a graduate assistant in the Writers’ House. “He seems to follow the Michael Stipe mantra, ‘think globally and act locally.’ He cares about human rights enough to speak up and speak out.”

El-Amine has had several essays and editorials published in Left Turn magazine, which he and his brothers helped found, The Washington Post and the Washington Spark, according to the Beltway Poetry Quarterly website.

“[He] is one of the best storytellers I know,” Schmidt said. “He is one of the handful of people I know who seems to be relaying this skill to the next generation.”