Nuha Al-Sha'ar at Fitzwilliam College

'Stop and smell the flowers', says Nuha

Nuha Al-Sha’ar (Asian & Middle Eastern Studies and Education 2003) completed postgraduate qualifications at Fitzwilliam and is now an associate professor at the American University of Sharjah. She shares her experience of Fitz.

What are your reflections on Fitzwilliam?

Being an overseas student, I had to leave my family at home and for the first time in my life I was completely on my own. However, the College became my second home and family. It provided me with a solid support and friendly atmosphere. I have always felt that I was so lucky to be associated with Fitz; everyone was so friendly and supportive. I remember so well all the friends I made at Fitz, the high dinner table and Cambridge medieval traditions that I was introduced to for the first time; the college May Ball, and the garden parties that we used to attend.    

Fitz was very supportive and did everything to enable me to fulfil my potential. It was a challenging experience to be a student at Cambridge, I always asked myself whether I was good enough to stay the course at Cambridge. This thought was ever present in my mind and always motivated me to work hard and excel. Being at Fitz and having supportive tutors at the College, like my tutor, Dr Bill Allison made all the difference. 

I also remember the College’s beautiful green gardens and whenever I walked in the College, the then head porter, John Eisold, used to say to me all the time, ‘Nuha, stop and smell the flowers.’ It was so beautiful. I always remember this comment fondly. 

Can you tell us about your academic work?

When I first joined Cambridge, I became an MPhil student at the faculty of Education reading for a degree in Educational Research. This course was one of the greatest choices in my life. It was very challenging and intellectually stimulating. We studied about the history of education, theory and practice of oral history and education, education and politics, and many other topics. We were taught by very prestigious and highly commended academics. We had classes every week with Professor Philip Gardner, who was at the time the course coordinator. I also studied with Professor Michael Evans, who supervised my MPhil thesis, looking at students’ views of the teaching of foreign literature at the University of Homs in Syria. 

After finishing my MPhil in education, I joined the Phd programme at the faculty of Oriental Studies, as it was then called. Dr James Montgomery supervised my PhD thesis. His critical acumen and meticulous reading benefited my work greatly.  

During my PhD days, I developed, matured, and revelled in the intellectual environment of Cambridge. I still remember cycling to the University Library, trawling for books and knowledge. 

What happened after Fitzwilliam?

After I graduated, without corrections, I was offered a job at the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London as a research associate. I worked at the same time teaching Classical Arabic Literature and Arabic Language at the University of London, at the School of Oriental and African Studies. I joined the American University of Sharjah in 2012. Last year, I was promoted to an associate professor. I have been active in research and published four books, with prestigious academic publishers, and many book chapters and journal articles. I feel I wouldn’t have been able to do this without the support and foundation from my College and Cambridge. 

I graduated from Fitz in 2010 and the war in Syria broke out in 2011. It is emotionally hard to see my country suffering, but I am trying to make a contribution towards a peaceful conclusion of the war by establishing a foundation to help Syrian students complete their studies. 

What advice would you give, with the benefit of your experience?

For me university days were the best time of my life. I worked extremely hard but I also made sure to enjoy life at Cambridge. One of the things that has driven me all my life is to be able to challenge the glass ceiling. The only way I discovered I could fulfil my goal is through education. So the advice that I would give to new perspective students is to take their studies seriously, whilst remembering the wise words of the porter to ‘stop and smell the flowers’.