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Alumnus’ Career Choice Was Inspired by Events of 9/11

Leon Shahabian
Leon Shahabian

Leon G. Shahabian was a student at Penn State University Park campus when the attacks of 9/11 occurred. He remembers that many of his fellow students wanted to get involved and help in some way; some joined the military; others found positions in government.

“One day our grandkids are going to ask us what we did after 9/11 in service of our great nation,” states Shahabian. He will have a lot to say in response to that question.

After graduating in December 2001 with a degree in International Politics, he took the skills that he acquired at Penn State, and in 2002, became one of the two founding staff members of Layalina Productions, a nonprofit television production company. Located in Washington, D.C., Layalina Productions produces pro-American documentary and “reality” TV shows that air on the leading Arab television channels. Translating to “Our Nights,” Layalina is aptly named because the company’s programs are only aired during prime time in the Middle East.

Shahabian explains that he grew with the company, which serves as an outlet for reaching the Arab people through television and media publications. Today he serves as vice president and corporate treasurer.

Generation Entrepreneur is a program that Shahabian created and executive produced. The show builds companies with current students and creates jobs for recent graduates in an area where positions are greatly needed.

“They elect officers, they issue stock, they have a business model that community leaders, especially from the business sector, have blessed, and those that win get incubation funding,” Shahabian explains.

He is the executive producer of the hit reality series On the Road in America, now in its third season, which features Arab students who discover the diversity and uniqueness of the United States on their first visit to the country. American Caravan, the sequel series to On the Road in America, is another popular show that features six young American students who travel for the first time to five Arab countries, on a thirteen-week journey, in the footsteps of the Arab Spring–a revolutionary wave of demonstrations and protests occurring in the Arab world that began on December 18, 2010.

According to Shahabian, casting is probably the most difficult task when producing these shows, especially since they need to bring diversity–socioeconomic, geographic, and religious—to the cast. He states that they are not trying to showcase the best candidates; rather they are looking to bring together the most complementary group. His shows feature real people in real situations; Shahabian classifies these programs as “reality shows with substance.”

Recently, Shahabian co-produced an award-winning documentary, Life After Death, which features family members of American, Arab, and European victims of Al-Qaeda and their compelling messages of suffering, endurance, and hope.

This documentary allows audiences to witness the “human toll of terrorism, seen through the eyes of people who lost loved ones,” says Shahabian.

Shahabian also serves as senior editor of Layalina’s publications, The Chronicle and Perspectives. Overall, his work is nonprofit and mission driven, with the main goal of improving U.S.–Arab relations.

“After 9/11, there was a lot of good will; it was an interesting time to be in Washington,” comments Shahabian. “President George H.W. Bush is the Honorary Chairman of Layalina’s Board and Henry A. Kissinger is a member of the Board of Counselors, along with Zbigniew Brzezinski and a long list of statesmen from both sides of the isle. Ambassador Richard Fairbanks is Layalina’s Founder and Chairman.”

Recently, the organization celebrated its tenth anniversary with a gala at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. There, internationally acclaimed three-time Pulitzer Prize winning author and journalist Thomas L. Friedman was the keynote speaker and Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonnenshine provided remarks.

During a recent visit to Penn State Berks, Shahabian fondly recalled that his journey began at the campus, where he was a student from 1997 through 1999. He then completed his degree in International Politics and French Language and Literature, with a minor in History, at University Park.

His decision to major in International Relations was an easy and natural choice because he was always interested in the field. French literature was a hobby and passion that he chose as a dual major. Lastly, he minored in History simply because he loved it.

Initially, Shahabian decided to attend Berks because his family lives in the area. He was involved in several student organizations, and served as president of Pi Sigma Alpha (Political Science Honors Society). During his college career, Shahabian made the Dean’s List for seven semesters and completed five internships in Washington, D.C. on Capitol Hill, with trade associations, advocacy groups, and at a think tank.

As a Phi Beta Kappa member, Shahabian emphasizes the value of a Liberal Arts education. “The skills that students learn in their liberal arts classes can be applied to many aspects of their life and career. You are taught how to think and analyze, and you are learning transferable skills. Wherever you end up, you’ll bring value to a company.”

“It’s a pleasure to come back and speak to Penn State students, to learn from them, and to share with them my experiences. I speak on campuses throughout the country, I speak at think tanks, but it’s always good to come back home.”

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