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Story | Education
10 June 2020

Taunts drove her to excel – but QF showed her what a leader looks like


Sarah Shaath says NU-Q enabled her to let go of her “insecurities and fears”.

QF graduate Sarah Shaath shares how receiving NU-Q’s Dean’s Award is a culmination of her personal journey to overcome her own insecurities.

Last summer, Sarah Shaath – the first student from Northwestern University in Qatar to intern at the BBC – was prepping to conduct an outdoor interview in Washington D.C. as part of her two-month-long placement with the British media corporation.

A breeze tugged at her headscarf. As the graduate of the Qatar Foundation partner university secured the hem of the cloth in place, she noticed an onlooker staring at her. In an instant, she was transported back to school.

A decade ago, Shaath was studying in a little town in the UK, where there were hardly any other Muslim families other than her own. And in her school, she was the only girl wearing a hijab at the time.

The QF graduate ultimately received NU-Q’s Dean’s Award and is the university’s first student to intern at the BBC.

Stares and subtle verbal taunts soon became as much a part of her school life as her studies were. “Do you wear it in the shower?” a student – referring to her headscarf – once taunted her. Stifling tears, she nervously adjusted her hijab and walked away.

Over the next few years, Shaath says she “responded to the hurt inside” by pushing herself to excel, a drive that continued when her family moved to Qatar and she joined an international school in Doha, where she didn’t have to face the bias she had previously encountered.

“I developed an ‘I need to prove to myself that I can do anything’ attitude, and that pushed me to succeed in almost everything I attempted,” says Shaath.

“But this also proved to be my undoing. I was constantly investing my time and effort in proving my worth to myself and others; I wouldn’t settle for anything else than being the best, and I couldn’t accept even the gentlest of constructive feedback.

“I would have continued on this trajectory had I not chosen to join Northwestern University in Qatar [NU-Q} to study journalism. NU-Q exposed my flaws; it made me dissect my conscience in a way that I had never done before.”

Each week at NU-Q revealed exactly how much more I had to learn - that if I wanted to be a leader, I first had to learn to put others first.

Sarah Shaath

As she listened to lectures, completed projects, and participated in trips, she realized that education wasn’t solely about grades or awards - and that if she wanted to be a journalist, she would have to make peace with herself before she could even attempt to understand another person’s circumstances and concerns.

As a child, she’d spent three years with her family in war-torn Palestine; three years that left her emotionally scarred and feeling unsafe. The experience, coupled with her high-school years in the UK, had forced her to hide her true self behind her achievements - and more.

“Prior to joining university, I had grown accustomed to hearing people say ‘yes’ to all my proposals,” she says. “I’d become so ambitious that I entered university with the intention of throwing myself into the thick of things and leading activities, from day one.

“But each week at NU-Q revealed exactly how much more I had to learn - that if I wanted to be a leader, I first had to learn to put others first.’

In that first year, Shaath says NU-Q taught her to let go of her insecurities and her fears, and to use her childhood experiences as tools to sensitize herself to others around her – a shift which also caused a palpable change in her training to be a journalist.

“Initially, I was almost mechanical in the manner in which I conducted interviews,” she recalls. “I’d ask questions with hardly any appreciation of the personal circumstances of the interviewee.

I stopped searching for leadership roles; instead, the roles came to me.

Sarah Shaath

“But as I began to use my own experiences as stepping stones to relate to others, I found I could genuinely connect with interviewees and understand their circumstances.

“My relationships with my peers changed too. I learnt to be more approachable, to relate to their concerns. I learnt that leadership is about letting others contribute and achieve; that their achievements were mine.”

As she gradually began to look at her past in a new light, Shaath says she also learnt to temper ambition with approachability – something which had an unexpected result.

“I stopped searching for leadership roles; instead, the roles came to me.”
Over the next three years, she became one of NU-Q’s student ambassadors; captained the university’s women’s basketball team; hosted His Highness Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Amir of Qatar, at the inauguration of NU-Q’s newsroom; and attended the Paris edition of QF’s Doha Debates.

In her final year, she edited The Daily Q, NU-Q’s online newspaper; became the university’s first student to intern at the BBC; helped settle NU-Q’s first-ever student-led protest, and was elected as the president of NU-Q’s Student Union. And recently, Shaath was told she was the recipient of the university’s Dean’s Award.

When I learnt that I’d been selected for the Dean’s Award, I felt that my four-year journey to reach inside and re-build myself had come to fruition.

Sarah Shaath

“When I learnt that I’d been selected for the Dean’s Award, I felt that my four-year journey to reach inside and re-build myself had come to fruition,” Shaath muses.

“Unlike my school years, I was being recognized for the effort I’d put in for others; not for myself. That feeling runs deeper than the thrill you experience when you win something for yourself.”

Most students would view such achievements as an indicator that they had achieved everything they could possibly strive for; that they were at the pinnacle of their university journey. For Shaath though, that moment occurred as she was preparing for the BBC interview in Washington D.C.

“That summer morning, as I adjusted my scarf, I noticed an onlooker staring at me,” she recalls.

Shaath’s time at NU-Q included becoming a student ambassador, captaining its women’s basketball team, and helping to mediate its first ever student protest.

“Four years back, I would have immediately been on the defensive, bristling inside and putting on a façade of confidence. But this time, I didn’t. My years at NU-Q and QF’s Education City had taught me that every person has their own problems, and hence, deserves to be shown kindness.

“Instead, I smiled re-assuredly at the person. Seemingly surprised that I would make direct eye-contact with him, and return his gaze with genuine warmth, he smiled back.

“That’s when I knew I had arrived; that I had truly conquered myself; that by letting go of all my emotional baggage, I had made room for others. And that, finally, I had what it takes to be a journalist.”

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