by Belinda Breeze


The founding President and Board Member of the Centre for Academic Integrity in the UAE, Associate Professor of Cyber Ethics at the Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences, and Programmeme Director for Freshman Pathway Programmes at the University of Wollongong in Dubai, Dr Zeenath Reza Khan was named 2020 Global Educational Influencer and one of 100 Most Admired People in Education in 2021 by The Excelligent. Here, she discusses her university years and how they influenced her career path and wider philosophy of life.

Education UAE: Why did you choose Wollongong University?

Dr Zeenath Reza Khan: It’s the summer of ’97 and I’m geared up to jet back to Bangladesh to embark on a thrilling medical journey. Just before I bid farewell to my bestie, we decide to sprinkle some humour on our parting moments. I ask her: “What should I bring back for you?” and she, with a twinkle in her eye, starts listing fancy cars. My deadpan replies of “We don’t have that” play out like a broken record until she drops the bomb – “an Intel”. My brain takes a moment, before I respond, “What kind of car is that?” Fast forward two months, and guess who’s swapped scalpels for software programmes at the University of Wollongong in Dubai? Of course, the plot twist wasn’t just for laughs. Being part of a STEM powerhouse family, it was always simply a question of which branch I’d choose. I’d realised medicine was as appealing to me as a wet blanket and with UOWD unveiling its BCompSc programmeme, it felt like a match made in quirky academic heaven.

Who needs fancy cars when you can cruise through the digital realm, right? Life is full of unexpected pit stops.

Education UAE: How did your university experience shape your career path?

Dr Zeenath Reza Khan: The journey was both distinctive and demanding. Undoubtedly, my esteemed teachers played an instrumental role in shaping not only my academic experience, but also influencing my career trajectory. Their unwavering dedication, boundless compassion, kindness, and utmost professionalism served as an inspiration. Consequently, I found myself compelled to follow in their footsteps, aspiring to become an educator, mirroring the profound impact my parents had on my academic and professional aspirations. The experience was truly exceptional and characterised by humility. Commencing our academic journey at the campus opposite Al Mulla Plaza, where we shared space with a beauty salon, we transitioned to the Beach campus for our final semester, culminating in our graduation in 2020. These diverse environments added a unique flavour to our academic pursuits.

Education UAE: What extracurricular activities or clubs were most impactful for you?

Dr Zeenath Reza Khan: Our campus fostered a close-knit atmosphere, accentuated by our class comprising of merely eight individuals. This intimate setting prompted collaborative initiatives that not only strengthened our bonds but also contributed to the development of our collective skills and interests. One notable undertaking during our tenure was the inception of ‘Eureka!’ – an inter-university talent competition. Personally engaged in the organisational aspects alongside fellow students, I took on responsibilities ranging from coordinating the event to orchestrating a ‘Freaky Fashion’ show and choreographing a dance performance. These endeavours not only showcased our collaborative spirit but allowed us to express our creativity on a larger platform. We celebrated ethnic days on Diwali, where even the non-Asian students got into the festive mood, wearing Asian clothes and drawing Rangoli in the canteen area. We were also encouraged to participate in inter-campus events, such as the Sony Gulf Federal Environment Award for Undergraduate Scientific Research and the EEG Public Speaking Competition – both of which I was honoured to emerge victorious.

Education UAE: Did you have any mentors or professors who significantly influenced you?

Dr Zeenath Reza Khan: Absolutely. Mr Nawar Al Hakeem founded not only my Computer Science programmeme, but also the entire faculty. He demonstrated an unwavering commitment to providing equal opportunities and actively facilitated a conducive learning environment for female students. A notable instance of this was when, amid class excursions to GETEX attended by our male peers, our professor took it upon himself to personally transport the female students, ensuring a seamless experience to alleviate potential objections from our parents. This gesture exemplified the professor’s dedication to fostering an inclusive and supportive atmosphere.

Education UAE: What challenges did you face during your time at university, and how did you overcome them?

Dr Zeenath Reza Khan: A primary challenge stemmed from the fact the majority of faculty members were relatively new and the systems in place were in their nascent stages. Despite this, an atmosphere of curiosity and eager anticipation prevailed, manifesting in our collective interest to discern the identities of our upcoming instructors and the distinctive qualities they would bring to the educational experience. While the prospect of encountering new faces and methodologies was inherently exciting, it also induced a sense of trepidation. The realisation that the forthcoming semester held the potential to either solidify or compromise our academic pursuits added an element of pressure. Given the modest size of our cohort, we found solace and strength in working collectively to confront the uncertainties that lay ahead. This unity became a cornerstone in navigating the uncharted territory of our educational journey.

Education UAE: In what ways did the university community support personal growth and development?

Dr Zeenath Reza Khan: In our little community, the number of educators could be tallied on one hand. Among them were Mr Robert Wilson, our versatile administrative guru, and Mr Manoj, the adept accountant. Not to be overlooked, the dynamic proprietors of the café, the canteen uncle and his wife, who occasionally extended their culinary offerings on credit, adding a distinctive charm to our small enclave. Despite the limited scale, the compactness of our community created an environment of unparalleled intimacy. Teachers, recognising the significance of individualised attention, curated classes and assessments tailored to each student, fostering an atmosphere where our academic journey was deemed pivotal and our role as learners held paramount importance. The ostensibly modest community, however, transcended its size, emerging as a formidable bastion of support for our academic and personal development. It stood resolute, always ready to extend a helping hand, a sympathetic ear, or a comforting shoulder. Despite its unassuming stature, our community epitomised resilience and fortitude, embodying the essence of a vibrant hub where learning and camaraderie flourished in a more formal yet supportive setting.

Education UAE: Can you speak about any specific projects or experiences that were pivotal in your learning?

Dr Zeenath Reza Khan: Our graduation project experience was instrumental in shaping my career, growth, and interest. In a team of five, we created a project management software called ‘Innova’. It meant late nights, fixing codes, writing lots of documents, testing everything, and finding and fixing mistakes – a real crash course for the working world.

It was amid the crucible of this project that a discerning realisation dawned upon me, elucidating my vocational path. My predilection for technical writing, documentation, system analysis and design, and the strategic management of information systems, became unmistakably apparent, leading to my receiving a higher distinction in the project. This epiphany guided my subsequent academic pursuits, leading to the acquisition of a Master’s in International Business from UOWD. The trajectory further extended to the attainment of a PhD from UOW Australia, where I explored the nuanced domain of Community Informatics.

Thus, the graduation project emerged not merely as a culmination but as a catalyst, propelling me towards an academic and professional odyssey marked by continuous growth and unwavering dedication to my chosen fields of expertise.

Education UAE: How has the alumni network benefited you post-graduation?

Dr Zeenath Reza Khan: We were asked to join the network right after our graduation ceremony, but the benefit to me came much later when I launched the WISP programme to create a Human Library of mentors for our current students. Our amazing alumni community jumped in to register to help and support us. There is a strong pride in the degree we graduate with and our graduates are quite happy to stay in touch with the university and the current student community. The network is constantly helping us with job placements, judging competitions, and so on. Education UAE: What advice would you give current students or recent graduates entering the workforce? Dr Zeenath Reza Khan: Each stumble takes us a step closer to mastering our professional groove. Picture your career as a cool story: Add some unexpected twists, show off your growth, and sprinkle in a bit of unstoppable spirit. When things go sideways, treat them like plot twists, not the end of the road; your story’s still unfolding and you’re the one holding the pen. Imagine yourself as the main character in your career movie, not just a sidekick.

Take charge of your story, shine with your skills, and let success groove to your own beat!