Chief Academic Officer at AMSI, Al Mawakeb Schools and ISAS, Alissar Nasr Soubra has inspired thousands of young students in the UAE to achieve their dreams. We discover her recipe to success.
Academia Management Solutions International (AMSI), and its schools, are responsible for transforming the lives of students in the UAE for over 30 years with over 20,0000 students enrolling at one time or another. Students from all nationalities including many UAE nationals have gone on to achieve huge success. Many of the most successful and recognisable names in the UAE were graduates of AMSI. Someone who has been at the heart of the AMSI corporation for over 25 years is Chief Academic Officer Mrs Alissar Nasr Soubra. An AMSI graduate herself in 1984, Nasr Soubra has dedicated her career and in many ways, her life to the students and has mentored thousands of successful graduates.
As Chief Academic Officer at AMSI, Al Mawakeb Schools and ISAS, Alissar Nasr Soubra is responsible for coordinating all aspects of curriculum development, delivery and assessment, as well as student support programs and services for all AMSI-managed schools. In collaboration with a dedicated academic team, she leads the ongoing process of reviewing, updating and developing the schools’ academic and support programs to ensure that they remain comprehensive, dynamic and improved. She is also involved in various consultancy projects that help existing schools in assessing, restructuring, and enhancing their academic systems and programs
But it is her infectious personality and positivity that has helped to inspire thousands of students throughout her career. Alissar has seen some of the most influential men and women in the UAE sit in her classrooms and she does remember every single one of them. Ask her to name any student from a photograph and she can do it! She is still in touch with many of her students and has become friends with and regularly meets with many of her alumni. Alissar’s personal touch and likeability are perhaps what has made her so successful at helping to raise successful students in her role. Alissar has been in the UAE for over 40 years and has seen it change and develop in ways that many have not. She has also seen the young people change and develop, in particular the young women who she strives to empower and motivate to achieve goals they never thought possible. And it has worked which is something we discovered as she talks us through many of her hugely successful students. Alissar is about more than just giving children a good education. She makes sure to go that extra mile to offer students a personal touch and make appreciate and understand the opportunities of the world today.
So what is the secret to empowering women at a young age? That was the first question on our lips when we met with Alissar in Dubai last month. Here, she shares her not-so-secret remedy and while there are many guidelines and policies that can be followed, what we believe is truly inspiring to these women to achieve their dreams is Alissar herself…
How important is it in today’s society to be empowering ladies at a young age?
The ‘young age’ factor is very important because it initially builds a mindset for the girls which is key. Working with girls that know from a young age that certain things are the norm, not an exception, makes it easier for them to assume their power as they get older. I believe in starting at an early age and that’s why I’m very happy to be in an environment where I can put that into action. It’s important in the same way you build manners or etiquette in young people. I don’t seek equality, I seek equity for girls. We need to teach them that they must get an equal share and equal opportunities. So it plants seeds and those seeds might not show right away, but sooner or later you will reap what you sowed.
What are some of the biggest challenges you see young girls facing today?
Who are we fooling? The struggle is still there and it’s still very much alive. Maybe one of our greatest challenges is still men and how they perceive this subject. So while I think we’ve made huge strides and there are a lot of men adopting a new approach, there are still issues. Don’t get me wrong, almost every time I speak to a woman who has felt empowered, she has had the support of at least one or two males figures in her life. In my case, my father and my brothers played a huge role. I never felt that I wasn’t empowered, it was normal for me. I always had the same opportunities my brothers had. We need more mothers educating their sons to grow up to do this because if the men don’t get on board faster the problem will not go away. In the UAE this has taken effect but we know it’s not the case all over the world. There are a lot of countries that are still way behind. So a big challenge is how do we get boys to understand this. For me, it’s a duty that I have with my son and it is something that I intentionally work on within my parenting technique. I want to be sure that my boys understand the value of the women in their lives and the importance of their contribution to society. This is something that every mum, sister, aunt needs to do as I don’t think enough of us are.
Another very important thing is that often it is women standing in the way of other women. This is why a huge aspect of what I work for is how to get these girls to understand that their biggest support is other girls and they should not stand in the way of each other. This is something that is happening, even at a young age through gossiping and talking behind each other’s backs. Most of the time when you see bullies, it is girls bullying girls, not boys bullying girls. This is the beginning of women not supporting each other in the future and it’s something that I’m consciously talking about with the girls.
What are some of the results that you have seen from this?
The women and their positivity are the results. That is what I focus on. Instead of talking only about our struggles let’s talk about our successes. Let’s talk about the fact that there are now women ruling the world and if there were more women in these positions I think the world would be in a better place. I think that the future belongs to women and that’s because of what women did in the past that got us to this point. I am how I am because of what my mum went through and I think it is changing in each generation. Women are finding their voices and that is having an impact. Another positive is that women are realising that yes, family is important if you can make it happen, but it is not a minus in your life if you don’t have it. This is a big challenge for Arab women specifically and is another stereotype that I am intentionally breaking because I know so many women who do not have families but are amazing and giving back to their communities in other ways.
What are the strategies you adopt as an educational body when it comes to empowering women?
Communication is key as well as leading by example. I don’t always do everything in a formal way. I might walk with the girls in the hallway or sit down on the floor with them and talk. The teachers in my team do the same because and this is because in a formal setting the message doesn’t always sink in. I approach my students from the angle of “whatever you want to say, say it.”
We also created AMSI Voices. I started this group five years ago with some of my alumni, a lot of them UAE nationals from different walks of life, and they came together and decided that we have to give back. So we go into the AMSI schools and educate the children on the successes and experiences of the alumni. To date, we have delivered six conferences and we have also created opportunities on campus for alumni to come in and talk to the children. So far over 250 alumni have been back and talk to the students, running panels and sessions to teach specific skills. It’s been very empowering for boys and girls. The first conference; “Girls are Makers of Change”. saw twenty-four alumni present, all UAE Nationals and in all different positions from artists, to doctors to lawyers, to entrepreneurs. We had a full day and the keynote speaker was Her Excellency Reem Al Hashimi who is also one of our Alumni. We also have something called Monday 101 where alumni come and give workshops to the students and they rotate and learn different skills. This is another pro-active action that we took to get involved and make sure that the girls are getting their fair share of exposure to options.
What do you think schools can improve on with regards to this subject?
I’m going to continue to do what I do and maybe grow this network even more. My dream is to someday maybe take what we do with AMSI voices further than just within our schools. Why aren’t more schools doing this? So that’s something that needs to be looked at. The second thing is policies – how do we become more effective in enforcing policy changes? We also need to invite more women to become vocal about their struggles but also their successes.
What is the biggest challenge you face in what you do to?
Aside from how we get these messages through to the girls and boys, a big challenge that we face is policies and what the governments are doing to accomplish the equity that we are looking for. Some laws are outdated in many countries and we need a pro-active executive policy to take quick action. We are blessed to be in a country where laws can change very fast, but that’s not the case everywhere in the world. Again if we have more people taking part in this then the results will be achieved quicker.
What would be your biggest achievement so far?
I measure my achievements by the achievements of people around me, not by my own. So when my students succeed I see it as a success for myself and that is a high beyond all highs.
What is the feeling that you get when you see your past students achieve success?
It is the best feeling on the planet. It is a feeling of tremendous pride and hope. I am a true believer in the young generation and I don’t like it when conversations about the teens of today take a negative turn. They are way ahead of my generation when we were their age and I think the world is in good hands. I think the kids of this generation will be agents of change. I consider it a privilege to be amongst these them and I am very grateful.
What advice would you give to young people who are afraid to take a step to achieve their dreams?
I would say it’s Ok to be scared. You would be mistaken if you think that I don’t still get scared sometimes. Fear is not a bad thing if you turn it into something that drives you forward and doesn’t hold you back. The second thing I would say is to silence the negative voices in your lives and find the strength in other people in your life. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and turn that negativity into a positive. Please stop using or finding excuses for not moving forward. I have seen students come out of very distressing situations and turn them into strong, positive experiences. It is doable to turn every negative into a learning opportunity.
Can you tell us about one success story that has touched your heart?
Yes, and I want to talk about unique achievements. Reem Al Hashmi is very special to me and also Hind Seddiqi is very dear to my heart. Another is Elham Al Qasimi. who was the first Emirati woman to trek to the North Pole. What stuns me about her is that when she did what she did it was incredible – she did it at a time when a UAE woman would never do this. She also carried the Olympic torch in London in 2012. These are the little things that you have to appreciate.
Nouf Omar, one of our alumni is a pilot for Emirates. She came to our first conference dressed in her usual clothes but she brought with her pilot’s hat. At the time she was around eighteen and she said: “my dream is to wear this hat.” Then three years later she came back and she was dressed in a full pilots uniform and she had made it. This inspired a lot of the girls who may have been told they couldn’t be pilots. The students need to hear strong voices and they need to realise that it isn’t easy.
There are so many women who became doctors when no other Emirati women were and some of these women are in the privileged position of being leaders in their field. There is a UAE archery made up of six girls and three were our students. There are so many and so many boys as well, the list is so long. I am very proud of each and every one of them – from the doctors to stay at home mothers.
How do you think students in the UAE are open to opportunities that perhaps they wouldn’t be in other parts of the world?
There are absolutely more opportunities available in the UAE compared with other countries. One of my goals is that I want students to understand and appreciate how lucky they are to be in a country that offers them so many opportunities. And I want them, especially the UAE nationals, to understand that they have a responsibility to give back to their community, their country, their society and their families.
What are the personal and professional mottos that you live by?
Bring it on.
What is a book that you would recommend reading?
“Outliars” by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s a fantastic book and the message that I take away is to stop thinking that people are born innately talented. There are a lot of people who made it in the world because they had luck and they sought support. I like books that have a message of hope but also have practicality and fact.
Who is the person that inspires you the most?
This is something my students ask me a lot. In truth, I don’t have one answer. Of course, my parents inspire me, but I truly get inspired by so many people in my life. It could be from anyone from an Uber driver to a waiter to one of my students.
What is your morning routine?
When I get to school I love walking around talking to the kids or anyone I run into. Anyone from the kids to the janitor to the principal. I love communicating with people on all levels.
What would be your alternative career?
I love what I do but initially, I wanted to study marine biology because I have this unexplainable love for whales and dolphins. Aside from that, I love science and physics and maths so maybe I would be an engineer. But right now if you ask me, I wouldn’t want to do anything else.
What is the goal that you would like to achieve in 2020?
I don’t like to have resolutions as such as I feel they limit you. I’m more about reinventing yourself every day. So I ask myself ‘what can I do tomorrow that is a little bit better than yesterday?’ I also hope to read more. I’m always looking for a book that makes me feel good. I want to travel more. Do less day to day routine work and more on the groundwork. Spend more time with my parents and family.
By Lindsay Judge