Nasrin Shah-Abu Shakra, Cairo-based educational expert

I struggled as a young person … I was the ugly duckling with the funny name and no fashion sense. I wasn't deemed one of the 'cool kids' until much later in life, when I didn't care anymore.

I was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts. Both of my parents are from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

In the early 1970s my parents settled in Boston, where they witnessed race riots, flower children, residue from the Vietnam War and school integration. (Fitting) into US society and culture was an extremely intense experience - both dramatic and, at times, depressing.

Prior to migrating, my parents had a somewhat idealistic view about their new city. They envisaged Boston as the home of the Kennedys, Harvard, medical research and cutting-edge values.

Growing up in this environment, I watched my parents exercise patience and respect towards a foreign culture that they didn't always understand. Both my parents were completing their education at the time at Harvard.

My mother always spread seeds of wisdom. She didn't seem to mind that no one could pronounce our names, or that we didn't eat meat for four years until we found a halal market, or that everyone would ask us why we were fasting, or why (we) decorated the house with lights for Eid when Ramadan fell in the middle of summer.

We often hosted social events in our home. I recall colourful and vibrant iftars and social gatherings.

One year my mother set up an Islamic summer school for girls in our home.

Some people in the neighbourhood called the police, saying that too many minorities were coming in and out of the premises. Fully aware of her rights, she continued with her school. The complaints gradually subsided.

That was the summer my fellow students and I first read the Holy Quran and understood what Ikra (read) meant. Seeking higher education became a priority for me and the other girls in the school.

After school, I did a semester at Harvard …
… then decided to attend the American University (AU) in Washington DC. I was drawn by the power and politics of the nation's capital. I studied political science, history and philosophy.

While at AU, I worked part-time in private, governmental and non-profit institutions. My first government position was with the (US) Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

At the same time, I did a Master's degree in management science, concentrating on management information systems. I worked from 8 am to 5 pm and attended classes at night. It was a gruelling and stressful time.

After this, I was accepted into a PhD programme in technology and education at the AU. A few weeks after beginning my PhD, I was offered a position as director of the Fulbright Teacher Exchange Orientation Program.

Those were challenging and exciting years. I was working in the sphere of one of the most well-regarded international educational exchange programmes in the world. In addition, I was earning my PhD.

I was able to meet, work with and learn from so many great people.

Yet the one I admired most, and still admire, was Mrs Harriett Fulbright. Her grace, intelligence, humility and creativity inspire me to this day.

Her late husband, Senator J. William Fulbright, developed the Fulbright Program to "create mutual understanding of the peoples of the US and other nations". His book The Arrogance of Power is relevant today, although it was published in 1966.

A turning point

At around the time I completed my PhD, the UNDP's Human Development Report on the Middle East was in circulation. I devoured my copy and learned that education and gender equality were the greatest (challenges facing) the Middle East.

The moment I put the report down, I knew what I needed to do.

Upon graduation, I was offered a position at the American University of Sharjah (AUS). I left my beloved city, my home … and headed to the UAE. The AUS opportunity surfaced just days after I had learned I was short-listed as a presidential management intern assigned to the White House.

It was a great opportunity, but I was bound and determined to reverse the brain drain that was so prevalent in my parents' generation and make a contribution to education in the Arab world.

I worked at AUS for two academic years (2002-2003). I still remember my flight there and how excited I was; I remember thinking that I would be working in one the best intellectual communities in the region.

I learned a lot at AUS and many of my students, especially young women, have become close friends. Some of them say I'm their mentor or role model.

After my two years at AUS, I knew it was time to return to the US.

I was invited to teach at the University of Michigan in 2004. It was the most scholarly, intellectually robust and supportive community I have been a part of. (My graduate students) were working 'in the field' on leadership tracks and practised the theories that we were developing in the classroom.

They implemented what they learned and I was able to witness theory being put into practice in the real world.

Currently, I am a fellow at the University of Alabama's Institute of Interactive Technology and an adjunct professor at Lehigh University (in Pennsylvania).

I am working on several publishing and research projects, while creating an LLC in educational consulting and working with my husband, who is one of the proprietors of Educational Services Overseas Limited, which provides high quality private education in the Middle East.

I am also the Middle East representative for Oppenoffice (the architectural firm of Chad Oppenheim) which is based in New York and Miami (and is designing some buildings in the UAE). I am involved in projects for many international organisations in the Middle East and the US.

At the moment, I'm based in Cairo but I move between there, the US and Dubai, spending a few months at a time in each place.

Being able to function on both sides of the globe simultaneously allows me to see things from different angles. I look for new innovations worldwide and assess whether or not they can be applied in the Middle East.

The future success of the Middle East and the US depends on education.

We can complain and point fingers, or we can coexist and work towards a solution. People need to understand that modernisation doesn't mean simply buying and adopting foreign innovations, but coming up with new ideas … in other words, modernisation does not mean Westernisation.

I hope to dedicate my life to achieving success through education, establishing solid lobbying campaigns and acting as a liaison between the US and the Middle East.