“There are no wrong turnings. Only path we had not known we were meant to walk”
– Guy Gavriel Kay, Author
Among all the wonders we are blessed with, free will or choice is the most powerful thing we have. Clearly, our choices define us or who we are becoming. In fact, our lives are nothing but a collective result of all the decisions that we make. However, the choices that one must make is not always easy, and some end up taking the easy path from hard. Sadly, the hard choices include struggles and disagreements from others, nevertheless, it might be the righteous thing to do. Time and again, it has been proved that it is in such hard choices that great accomplishments lie. Portrayed below is the story of Dr Zeenath Reza Khan, Assistant Professor at the University of Wollongong in Dubai, who went against all odds and chose the path less travelled, the path that led her to greatness, to become a game changer.
A Blend of Passion and Perfection
Zeenath is not just an ordinary educational influencer and leader. ‘The lady of many firsts’, her story represents confidence, valour and persistence. Initially starting her career as a teacher, Zeenath is an author, motivational, tie-one speaker,Global Thinkers Mentor and Global Education Influencer Growing up, she had never visualized herself as a teacher, in fact, she had intended to purse medicine. However, life’s turns saw her pursuing her higher studies in computer science. Completion of this course set in motion a chain of destined events that took her on a successful journey. “It was one of those things where we grew up thinking this was going to be my career, but there was a point when I realized medicine was really not for me, but I had really excelled in my math and computers in my O’ and A’ levels. And so that’s where I headed ultimately,” comments Zeenath.
While the completion of the course from University of Wollongong (UOW) had kick-started Zeenath’s career, she bagged one of her firsts; she was one of the 15 students who had enrolled for the University’s first batch of computer science programme back in 1997. UOW recognized the exceptional academic performance of Zeenath and appointed her as a teaching assistant in 2001, a week after her graduation. Same year, she won the Federal Sony Gulf Environment Award for undergraduate research on the Biodiversity of Dubai. While teaching, Zeenath also focused on expanding her education qualification, completing her master’s in international business with distinction from University of Wollongong. Armed with almost a decade long experience in teaching, Zeenath moved from teaching Mathematics and Computer Science to Ethics in Cyber Space and Responsible Business.
Zeenath was endowed with the qualities of a teacher. “As for my career, I’m not just a lecturer or teacher, but a facilitator of learning and I believe teaching is in my blood. My grandparents were teachers, my parents were teachers too. So, this is the one profession that I foresee myself doing forever and ever because it’s an amazing rewarding experience, when you know you have actually made a difference and you have been able to successfully impart knowledge and make a difference; bring about change in a person’s way of thinking because of the knowledge that they have acquired from what you have taught,” she comments.
“To me teaching isn’t limited to the subject matter I teach in a classroom. My open-door policy has brought me close to my students beyond classrooms, such that I am accessible to them anytime, anywhere. My students and alumni don’t just approach me for advice on course content, but too guidance on life, work, balance, career, family and so much more!”
Having the expertise and the enriched experience in teaching, she fell in love with the career and everything it had to offer. “I have loved every moment of the last 18 years that I have spent teaching,” asserted Zeenath.
Breaking Down Societal Fetters and Becoming a Game Changer
Just like how some people are destined for greatness, Zeenath was engineered for greater accomplishments. First to successfully complete her PhD from UOW Australia at Dubai campus, after receiving full fee waiver scholarship, Zeenath’s PhD in Academic Integrity heralded a new dimension in her career and the events that unfolded later paved the way for a reformed educational fraternity. As one of the pioneering leading researchers, conducting studies on this topic since 2005, Zeenath is the first person to have done and recorded a PhD in UAE in the field academic integrity, a thesis that was commended by her examiner and nominated for the Emerald Doctoral Thesis Award. Having authored more than 40 publications, she is the regional expert who is being sought out by universities, colleges and schools to spread awareness about academic integrity. From organizing conferences to roadshows, to workshops, winning the UOWD Teaching Excellence to becoming the first Turnitin Global Innovation Award winner, to becoming the first faculty to bag the highest honour at UOW Australia – the Vice Chancellor’s Award for Outstanding Contribution to Teaching & Learning, Zeenath’s perseverance to enhance her students’ learning experience and preparing them for the future has led to many recognitions and accolades.
Zeenath believes that imparting knowledge with integrity and nurturing individuals into righteous adults is key to a happy, successful society. However, in order to make an impact in the education sector, Zeenath had to start from scratch, people around her were not comfortable to talk about academy integrity. Remembering her struggles she comments, “A lot of people were not aware. They did not feel comfortable talking. They had the impression that if they talked about it, if they said that students had cheated in their schools or universities, it was somehow, some sort of an admission of guilt on their part. So, I even faced situations where I attended local conferences or events, and when it was my turn to talk, people would just get up and leave because they didn’t think my topic was important enough.” Yet, Zeenath’s determination to remain steadfast in the moments of greatest peril, helped in achieving the desired goal. She is one of the most sought out speakers and facilitators, invited as keynote speaker or to organize workshops for training teachers and students alike on academic integrity and writing.
But, as easy as it sounds to read, instilling these values into students and teaching them about integrity in education is not easy. “It’s not just something we can stand up in front of a class and tell them: don’t cheat. That’s not good enough,” asserts Zeenath. While many believe that academic integrity is just about cheating in exams, she believes that it goes beyond that. Indirectly, the values of academic integrity shapes one’s attitude, character and ultimately the person they become. She comments, “So I believe I am preparing students for the future. They are the future leaders, the future policy makers, government officials, delegates, business owners. So you know, these values are what will determine how they will behave. And I believe that is where my greatest contribution has been from not just the publications, but the fact that now we have a positive attitude around the topic, more schools and universities are open to talking about it, collaborating, recognizing and upholding integrity in their classrooms.”
Leading by example is the strategic move that Zeenath adopted to instil these values in students. Rather than just talking about academic integrity, she made it a point to walk the talk. “We have to become the role models so we have to ensure that we are moulding our lives, lifestyles, the way we work, speak and carry ourselves, speak for the cause which is integrating integrity in education.”
“Smooth sea never makes skilful sailors”
Time and again it has been proved that one does not grow if the path is easy, it must be hard, filled with challenges. Today, Zeenath has earned the mantle of an exceptional leader whom people acquiescently follow. She adds, “If you ask a UOWD student, they will stand up and tell you exactly what academy integrity is and why it’s important. In fact, our alumni are constantly sending out the same message because they’ve got that message from us at the university, a campus that prizes integrity and prides in instilling this value in our students as graduate attribute, and I am honoured to have played a part in it.”
Shattering or Equalizing Gender Indifferences
A woman of substance, the milestones achieved by Zeenath have tattered the conventional norms of society. Beating against all odds, Zeenath passionately promotes STEM education for girls. Coming from a strong science background, she has a first-hand knowledge of the opportunities and career growth a STEM based education offers. Pursuing STEM gives young girls a plethora of opportunities, Zeenath is working towards breaking the conventional thinking of girls getting into this stream. “Girls are bombarded with implicit bias that pushes them away from pursing STEM and I believe in bringing about more explicit action to counter such stereotypes and help open more windows of opportunities for girls,” commented Zeenath. To achieve the same goal and spread the knowledge among the masses, she has conceptualized and introduced a summer camp exclusively for girls. Yet again, society does not accept a change without questioning it or disagreeing with it. Zeenath too was answerable to certain questions, her initial struggles were to make people understand that through focusing on STEM education for girls she was not creating a reverse gender discrimination, but rather eliminating the indifferences, and providing a safe environment for girls to pursue their interests. For her efforts, she was nominated and become the only South Asian finalist for Academic of Excellence at the Leadership Excellence for Women Awards & Symposium (LEWAS), Bahrain.
Zeenath is a game changer who has and continues to follow her passion to enhance students’ learning experience, not only through innovating blended teaching tools such as the ReBitVlogs (Responsible Business and IT Use Video Blogs), the Duelling Dilemma Deliverables or Mathalon – a simple math competition that she conceptualized to encourage her students to be interested in math, that turned into a national math Olympiad where hundreds of high school students participate every year to test their mettle across multiple syllabi and levels; but also through her mentorship skills, open-door policy and genuine care she takes in her approach to teaching and mentoring. Zeenath has mentored many student projects that have seen great success from winning national to international awards. Under Zeenath’s guidance, many students have blossomed from students to researchers, successful entrepreneurs and valuable members of the society. Her ability to go beyond classrooms to help students, women and society is a constant motivation for many. Zeenath’s achievements thus far are a testament to her effort and her courage and truly make her one of the leading academics in the country.