I made amazing friends and had some incredible teachers. It was a very sad day for me when my father’s business transferred to Dubai in the late 1980s hence cutting my ties to Greece. I still consider Athens home (one of many) even if I haven’t lived there in 3 decades.
What A-level subjects did you take and what were your favorite subjects?
My A-level subjects were biology, chemistry, maths and art. I had a huge love for biology, many thanks to the late and great Ms Wilkie who first became my teacher in 6th grade. I also loved art – again, thanks to Mr. Swan’s gentle guidance. He used to open the art studio on Saturdays to interested students and I often went with my older cousin to just draw for hours. I really loved maths and was fortunate to have Mr Atherton for both my O and A-levels. He gave us lots of challenging and brain twisting problems to solve which made the content much more engaging and exciting.
What were some lasting highlights from your experience at Campion?
There were a couple of moments of influence that remain with me even to today. I was struggling with organic chemistry in 10th grade and didn’t do too well in the final exam that year. Mrs Kontarines, my chemistry teacher, told me that I should persist and one day it’s just going to click and come together. I spent much of that summer studying and by the end of it, sure enough, the logic of organic chemistry all fell in place and I ended up doing well and loving chemistry. Another memorable incident when I was a bit younger involved running. I was on the cross-country team but not a particularly strong runner. Ms Smailes told me that I had stamina (whether she truly saw it in me or just wanted to encourage me); that phrase stuck with me and helped fuel me on through such things as running a marathon and swimming a 10 km distance on a challenge. Till today I still love mid-distance runs and swims and physical activity is an important part of my life. Both these incidents taught me the huge impact a simple, well-placed phrase can have on one’s motivation.
What did you study and where?
I left Campion with a strong interest in studying architecture but still wanting to keep the door open for a field involving biology. Once I arrived at MIT in Boston I sealed my interest and passion in architectural studies and ultimately that was my undergrad degree. I did a semester in Florence in my junior year which was a most enlightening experience; I strongly recommend a semester or year abroad if you have the opportunity.
I had the opportunity to continue architecture for my masters at MIT but opted, instead, to go to McGill and switch gears to urban planning. In my last year at MIT I developed an interest in the macro scale of urban development and the social implications of design hence the decision to pursue a career in urban planning.
I have studied and worked in numerous cities/countries (Lebanon, Athens, Florence, Boston, Minneapolis, Chicago, Washington DC, Toronto, Montreal, Dubai, Abu Dhabi) working in the public, private and non-profit sectors.
I started my career as an architect intern in Toronto and then Dubai before going back to grad school. After my master’s degree in Montreal, I came back to Toronto. It was hit by economic recessions (after both degrees) so it was hard at first to land a job. I waited tables and did some pro bono work and research until I got a full-time job. In Toronto I joined an urban design consulting firm. About a year into it my friend told me of an urban design position that was open in the City of Minneapolis so I applied for it and ended up moving to Minneapolis for five years. During that time I joined a consulting firm, Perkins and Will, then moved to their Chicago office when my husband started his MBA at Kellogg. I was then recruited for my first “big” job as the director of the American Institute of Certified Planners with the American Planning Association in Washington. I continued with them until after we moved to Abu Dhabi in 2008 where I joined and started the international planning practice for the American firm, Otak.
I have always been involved in pro bono and philanthropic ventures on the side, such as setting up an endowed scholarship fund for Arab students at MIT and another one at the American University of Beirut. I have poured a lot of my heart and energy into the remarkable Four Homes of Mercy, a home for 78 severely challenged individuals in Jerusalem; I founded the UAE chapter of Lambda Alpha International (a land economics society founded in 1930). I am also a board member of the MIT Arab Alumni Association and, pretty much since graduation, have interviewed MIT undergraduate applicants. I find it so energizing and inspiring to meet bright high school students who have a hunger for growth and want to make a difference in the world.
Four years ago I resigned my position at Otak (but stayed on in a consulting role until a few months ago) in order to find something I could sink my heart and soul into. In September 2014 in joined the THNK School of entrepreneurial leadership in Amsterdam and figured out what my next step should be! A little over a year ago I founded Thaki (www.thaki.org), a non-profit that brings donated computers, loaded with motivational, self-paced educational content, to refugee and disadvantaged children. I have made 6 trips to Lebanon in the past year, visiting educational centers and seeing children in the Bekaa Valley and the north of Lebanon in areas that have received a huge influx of Syrian refugees since the tragic crisis started a few years ago. I am a true believer in applying technology to enhance learning. Nothing has opened my heart more than seeing these kids just wanting to live normal lives and get on with their education. I hope I can do my small part in helping give these children the key to unlock their potential.
I met my husband, Geoff Batzel, in my planning program while at McGill. We have 2 boys, Marwan (14) and Ramzi (11) who, themselves, are third culture kids. Like me, they identify with so many cultures and places as home. I think our lives are all the more rich for having had the privilege of profoundly experiencing so much of the world. While it all started due to political turmoil (in my case, starting with my parents originally being displaced from Palestine in 1948), I have since sought new places and experiences and I have no idea when or where I’ll ultimately settle – if at all!
Tips for students
If you can figure out what makes you tick – what your passion is - push that button and see where it will take you. Learn new skills. Never stop learning and trying new things. Don’t take the easy route; push yourself hard, learn good habits (whether it’s studying, exercising, eating) because these habits are likely to stick with you for a very long time. Practice, practice, practice. Don’t be afraid to fail and fall – learn from these experiences as they will provide you the most valuable lessons. Be a good friend and treat everyone with compassion. Listen to your heart and your gut and see if you can balance that with your mind.