Education is the driving force of the educational sector, be it a preschool or high school; it is crucial for forming the base of the necessities of life. It encourages and empowers us to be self-sufficient.
Teaching is a profession that empowers the learner and the educator as well. A great communicator with passion driven by the zeal to encourage students, increase their creativity, and open doors for new approaches to teaching.
With a similar zeal for following her life’s calling into the teaching arena, Dr Zeenath Reza Khan, Program Director for Freshmen and Pathway Programs, Assistant Professor, and Founding President (Centre for Academic Integrity in the UAE) took her dive into the engineering sector after enrolling into medical school and later realizing it wasn’t meant for her.
Dr Zeenath R Khan took the righteous decision despite the consequences of changing her career path and following her passion for teaching. She pursued engineering and later climbed the ladder with persistent efforts and reached various milestones, becoming an assistant professor, and inspiring many on their own journeys.
Let’s have a closer look at her unconventional journey and know more!
Please let us know about the saga story of your career since its beginning.
I never imagined I would be a teacher by profession.
Like many Asian families, I was ‘supposed’ to become a medical doctor. All my subject selections, preparations, and everything for higher education were geared toward pursuing a medical degree somewhere. But it was not meant to be. I had the most absurd case of sympathy pain and could not stand the sight of blood, both kind-of mandatory requirements to pursue a degree in medicine.
So, at the tender age of 18, I signed my first contract with my father, taking responsibility for not pursuing medicine anymore and making a successful career out of whatever I chose to pursue.
The story recounted to me often hilariously by my mother – that of me standing up in the middle of the classroom and speaking to my peers at the tender age of six – should have given some indication of my life’s calling.
Teaching is in my blood. My parents and grandfather were all teachers. So, when I was called back by my professor to begin teaching as a lab instructor, I didn’t hesitate a moment. As they say, the rest seems history.
I have been teaching since September 2001 and am stepping into my 22nd year as an enthusiastic teacher at the Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences, the University of Wollongong in Dubai (UOWD). Growing from a lab assistant to now being an assistant professor of cyber ethics and information systems, program director for Freshmen and Pathway programs at UOWD College, and founding president for the Centre for Academic Integrity in the UAE, it sure is feeling like a saga, but it isn’t over yet, I hope!
During your journey, what challenges did you come across, and how did you overcome them?
I think one of the greatest challenges was the sudden change in my education career – I had enrolled in Computer Science when I was supposed to pursue a medical career. Rewiring myself to see myself as a software graduate took some time. Failing, not being able to get something right the first time, or how we imagine are all great catalysts for change if you let it. This philosophy has become a huge part of who I am even now.
The next greatest challenge has been working on the research area – academic integrity. I remember when there were times when no one was interested and would leave when it was my turn to present a study on academic integrity because it doesn’t happen in my class. With a lot of patience, perseverance, and grit, I hung onto the topic, continuing my work, completing a PhD under a full fee-waiver scholarship and publishing, connecting with, and becoming an Audit Board member for European Network for Academic Integrity, receiving their Research Excellence Award, and founding the Centre for Academic Integrity in the UAE.
I would be remiss if I did not recognize the tremendous support system and network around me of my parents, husband, daughter, sister, friends, mentors, my direct line managers, and UOWD’s President, Professor Mohamed Val Mohamed Salem, who have all always believed in me and my work, given me the courage to continue even when I faltered and helped me overcome challenges at every step.
Being a prominent leader, how do you manage to influence others?
I think a better question to ask would be, ‘How do we help and nurture others?’
As Voltaire said, ‘With great power comes great responsibility!’ And yeah, this statement did not originate from Stanley’s Spiderman.
As a facilitator of learning, I believe one of the primary objectives is to support others and their passion and help them grow in their journey. With this as my driving motivation, I have found that it is quite easy to inspire others when you believe in them when you show respect and trust, give them responsibility and honour that commitment, really lift people, hear them, and make a safe space for them to voice their thoughts, concerns, and ideas.
Sometimes it is hard for us to think or dream big. We have all had moments of doubt before taking a big leap. If I see someone at such a precipice, I try to connect with them, give them courage, or sometimes a simple smile or a metaphorical ‘Pat on the shoulder’, which is all the push they need to leap because they see what I see in them. When others see that you genuinely care about them, their hopes and dreams, and their success, they are more open to listening to what I have to say.
Leading by example is a great motto to have too. When people around me see I mean what I say because I practice what I preach, they are more inclined to believe me and accept what I have to say.
Lastly, I think one of the strongest influences is having the courage to admit when you are wrong and say ‘Sorry.’ This is difficult, painful, and sometimes embarrassing. But it is a highly motivating trait to have because it lets others see you are human; you are not perfect and hence fallible.
What are the major factors that keep motivating you towards your goal, and how do you inspire students to select an interesting career for their bright future?
My goals are simple – to help my students be the best they can be and so my students are one of my greatest sources of motivation because students walking through the door of a classroom come with an entire world on their shoulders, and I am always inspired by their courage, hopes, and resilience.
When talking about student learning and their future, I have found what inspires them is making them partners in this journey – their journey. This gives them a sense of control.
“Providing opportunities for students to grow, a sense of safety where they can try new things without fear and letting them know we care about their future”– all help to inspire students.
Being and bringing in role models to speak to students, connect with them, and share their stories of challenges and successes helps too.
We need to be enthusiastic about what we do, make learning fun, and make success more intrinsic, which helps open conversations for students to reach out and explore the umpteen opportunities lying in wait for them to pursue.
Tell us about the mission, vision, and core values for your future success.
My core values are what led me to the path of teaching cyber ethics and researching the field of academic integrity and are aligned with the University of Wollongong in Dubai’s core values of Integrity, Passion, Courage, Excellence, Collaboration, and Innovation. These core values have helped shape my mission and vision in life. I wish to be honest, fair, transparent, compassionate, respectful and act responsibly towards myself and everyone I engage with. My mission in life is to be able to help students learn, grow, and follow their dreams with integrity as successful, responsible, and contributing members of society, no matter where they settle.
In the end, all of this has led to a simple philosophy in my life, “My enthusiasm is key, my students’ brains the lock… I am picking!” which has me constantly innovating, being creative, and working hard at inspiring others.
How do you feel when you get to know that others are following you, and what else do you do so that people keep following you?
I don’t want people to follow in my footsteps because every one of us is unique, and we have our future. We need to celebrate that. I would be happy if someone has felt inspired by my decisions and taken their own that have led them to their successes; however they define it.
Being an inspiring leader, what would be your message to students across the world?
Find your passion. Look for what makes you happy. Don’t be afraid to fail and fall. Believe you can be a success.