Want to be Successful? Challenge Yourself, Experts Advise

Experts Advise
Experts Advise

Does anyone remember what it felt like being a university student, and having –– what seems to be –– the world’s weight on your shoulders? It feels like to be successful and influential, you must have everything together. But that's not the case at all.

Invited by the Peer and Advising Leader program, Tarek Shawki, Egypt’s minister of education and technical education; Nihad Shelbaya ’87, public and government affairs manager of ExxonMobil for Egypt and Cyprus; and Ahmed Okasha, founder and honorary chairman of Okasha Institute of Psychiatry, talked to a full house of students about making tough choices, having purpose, gaining resilience and discovering identity.

From personal anecdotes to actual obstacles, here is what each had to share:

Tarek Shawki: Taking On New Challenges

The more you learn about Shawki’s story, the more you realize that every step in his career was motivated by the idea of seeking challenge. “I updated my CV recently, and I feel like I just graduated –– like I still haven’t accomplished anything,” he reflected. “The journey and your success aren’t measured by degrees, but by the challenges you face and take. And that’s an ongoing journey.”

Shawki earned his Bachelor of Science from Cairo University and went to the United States to continue his studies. At 24, he enrolled at an Ivy League school, Brown University, where he completed two Master of Science degrees in mechanics engineering and applied mathematics and a PhD. He also got tenured at one of the top engineering schools worldwide, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign— but that was only a warm-up for Shawki.

Besides seeking challenges, Shawki emphasized the importance of learning outside academia. It was during his time as associate professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign that he became more interested in information technology. On his own, he started a self-teaching process, eventually landing him a job with UNESCO in Cairo. "”The internet gave me a sense that I could reach anyone at any time. So I resigned and took the new job at UNESCO. It was a crazy decision,” he said. “I was in a different habitat with a new career. But I was happy to learn. It never stops; it just restarts."

Taking his current position at the ministry, he states, has been the most challenging job he has had -- and he loves it. Shawki is working on a massive project that aims to target children’s education from the kindergarten level. His plan to reform education comes in the new curriculum that teaches toddlers four skills: to know, to work, to live and to be. “We are working day and night to introduce the new curriculum to 2.5 million kids across Egypt. Anything I’ve done before was far easier. But it is the drive of asking yourself: ‘What did you do today for others, not yourself?' It’s worth everything,” he affirmed.

Shawki asked students to recognize not only their potential, but their passion in the process. “Always define what you hope to achieve and what makes you happy and proud,” he advised. “It’s a wonderful journey. Always have fun in pursuing.” 

Ahmed Okasha: To Have and To Be

Okasha delved deep into the student psyche ­­–– knowing exactly how the mind works, and how life can be trying and tempting when it comes to a dilemma that many young people face at this time: discovering their identity.

It was during the 1960s that he, as a young student of medicine, was sent on a fellowship with others to England. By the time his cohort was done with their studies, he was the only one to return to Egypt, knowing he would be employed as a teacher's assistant and paid much less. “But it was my sense of belonging that brought me back to practice medicine in Egypt,” he explained. “Everyone at some point wants to have things, but to be is to know who you are and what you want to do.”

Through the passion he had for his field and the many nights he chose to spent in the psychiatric wards in hospitals, Okasha paved the way for revolutionizing the study and practice of psychiatry in Egypt and decreasing the stigma around mental illness. He was able to challenge stereotypes implying that psychiatrists are socially unfit and that mental illness, in itself, is shameful. He was the first psychiatrist to appear on television speaking about mental health.

Okasha highlighted the importance of social support, stressing that friends and peers at this age are more influential than family. “They enrich one's identity,” he said. “This prepares individual for the next step, which is self-achievement.” Covering a range of topics, he also emphasized key points for success, including self-transcendence, perfectionism, determination and resilience. “When it comes to your mental health, resilience against pressure and anger management is key,” he shared. “Resilience will help you set daily goals. It will help you be yourself and, therefore, help you succeed every day.” 

Nehad Shelbaya '87: Uniqueness as Self-Development

Long before being named one of the top 50 influential women in Egypt and facing the challenges of being a woman in a high-ranking position in a male-dominated field, Shelbaya was that Egyptian student in her international schools who always stood out. With her father as a diplomat, Shelbaya considers herself lucky to have grown up and been educated in many countries such as Pakistan, Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom and Tunisia. “In all of this, I knew I had to face the challenge of being successful and standing out," she stated. “As an Egyptian, I had to go back home and be successful and outstanding. Uniqueness will sometimes be your source of empowerment. It gave me the goal of being on top, of raising my own standard in every step.” 

Shelbaya noted that while facing these challenges, whether cultural differences or academia, she continuously worked on self-development by developing a daily habit of reflecting on how her day went. However, in understanding generational difference, she says that current students have access to even more tools, spaces, choices and connections when it comes to developing themselves –– starting from the array of majors to choose to talking to influential figures and learning from them.

Today, in her managerial position, Shelbaya is not only able to give back to herself, but also to the community through community-based programs. She advises the future generation that the way to have a fulfilling and successful career is to “find your path by knowing yourself,” and to remember that “confidence always comes from knowledge.”