Maha Shash is one of the first Gates Cambridge Scholars from Egypt. Her PhD will focus on the wider social impact of the Arab Spring in her country.
How has the Arab Spring influenced Egyptian society at an everyday level? Maha Shash is interested in the impact social change, international events and political ideas have on patterns of consumption and how the Egyptian experience compares with other cases in history.
She will be one of the first Gates Cambridge Scholars for Egypt when she arrives at Cambridge this autumn and says recent events have had a profound impact on every aspect of life in her country. She herself attended the original protests in Tahrir Square and says the spirit of hope there was very powerful. “Everyone had hope that change would happen,” she says. “Before that hope and dreams for the future were dying. There was a sense of freedom and a realisation we could change our country.”
Although the focus of her PhD in Sociology will be on patterns of consumption this is part of an ongoing wider interest in the gap between political rhetoric, academic theory and people’s everyday reality in her country.
This interest stemmed from her masters research on literacy classes, but also from her experience of doing an undergraduate degree in economics at the American University in Cairo which was generally disconnected from what was happening in Egyptian economics.
Maha applied to do the PhD during the Arab Spring, inspired by a sense of hope for the future. “I wanted to do something for Egypt,” she says. She was also interested in the Gates community and the focus on internationalism and creating a community of scholars who are all committed to improving the world.
Maha was brought up with an international outlook. Her father was a diplomat and travelled a lot. Although she was born in Cairo, from the age of two to six she lived in the Philippines and attended a Montessori primary school. She returned to Egypt for one a half years before her father was posted to Belgrade. It was during the Balkan war and Serbia was under economic embargo. As a child, she was not wholly aware of what was going on, but she did notice the lack of food in the supermarkets and many of her friends at the international schools she attended were leaving.
In Serbia Maha attended a French and a German school which meant she had to take extra language classes after school. “I had to study really hard because of the changing curriculums and languages. It was not easy. My mother helped me a lot,” she says.
Maha says she didn’t like the constant moving from country to country when she was young, but she appreciates it now. “As soon as I made friends we had to leave. When I was young I wished I could stay the same school, but when I started university I began to appreciate the experience. I noticed that I was able to understand different cultures, I started remembering the embargo and hyperinflation in Belgrade, the ongoing debates in school about President Marcos and Cory Aquino in the Philippines, I was able to relate my experience to academics and participate in debates and discussions with students from home and other countries,” says Maha.
When she turned 11 the family moved back to Cairo. They decided to stay there as her father no longer travelled far. He was posted to Kuwait and they would visit him on vacations, giving Maha and her siblings an insight into being independent as well as a new learning experience in Egypt and Kuwait.
At school Maha’s favourite subjects were maths, philosophy and logic, but she also loved music. She played piano and flute and was thinking of doing a degree in music and the arts. However, she was inspired by a female cousin to do economics. She graduated with the highest honours from the American University in Cairo, but she found the economics course very theoretical and based on the US curriculum.
After her degree and somewhat disillusioned by academia, she started working in finance and accounts at the university, but soon found the work was not as intellectually challenging as she wanted. She applied for a masters in economics in 2005 and won a full scholarship. The masters was more practical than her undergraduate degree and interdisciplinary, including subjects like sociology, and many students were international. There was also a lot of practical fieldwork, doing surveys and writing reports.
Maha worked on a literacy project, observing classes in Alexandria, Cairo and Giza. It was an experience she describes as “eye-opening”. “The people in the fieldwork classes were very diverse. Some were young people who had dropped out of school at an early age. Others were old women who were determined to learn to read so they could be independent, be able to help their children and not have to rely on others, for example, to read signs in the street for them. These women were very inspiring. I felt they had a strong internal power,” she says.
The project she worked on was run by a mix of government, NGO and private sector organisations. As she read the reports written by academic consultants, she felt more could be done to improve the quality of the literacy classes, but that the assessors settled for less so long as the results looked good. “I felt they were quite divorced from the reality on the ground and that the classes could have been so much better if the system was evaluated properly. That was where my interest in the separation between theory and reality crystalised,” she says.
After finishing her masters she tried to apply for a job in an international development agency, but was never called for an interview so she moved to Malaysia, where her father was working to try and find a job there. In Malaysia, Maha became interested in researching Malaysia’s economic development and hoped to find ideas that would work for Egypt.
After a year she returned to Egypt and was offered a higher position back in finance and accounts at the American University in Cairo and moved up the career ladder. Maha enjoyed returning to the university where she could attend conferences, audit graduate classes and take part in the university’s sustainable development activities. However, she says: “After three years I decided to resign to move to a different path that was more directly connected to human development and education.” Eventually she moved into teaching economics to high school students at an international school in Cairo and from there she was accepted to study at Cambridge.
“I want to give back and help these young students discover their strengths, to hold on to hope whatever happens and to lead the change they want to see for Egypt. I have been inspired by their dreams and I hope that I will be similarly inspired by the students who form part of the Gates community,” she says.
Picture credit: Creative Commons Flickr and M Moneib.