Inspiration

Every day is International Women’s Day: Christelle Abou Saab

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Christelle Abou Saab 23 / Paris via Beirut, Lebanon / Engineer – energy solutions

Find me on LinkedIn : Currently at GDF SUEZ

Education : Master of Engineering (Ecole Centrale Paris) : Major in Energy / Minor in Strategy & Finance

Languages : French, English, Arabic, Spanish

Claudia : You’re Lebanese, I’m Australian and we met last year in Paris at an Alumni event I organized for the University of Queensland (UQ). How did our paths end up crossing?

Christelle : I grew up in Lebanon, a country that has been bruised by wars for as far as I can remember (and as far as my parents remember too!). Unfortunately, its government is not robust or modern enough to create a future for its bright driven population, to create new pathways and wealth. That being said, Lebanese people are extremely proud of their roots and we will seek each other out in foreign places to share that pride and love for our country. The Lebanese diaspora is a thing, google it!

After graduating from high school in Beirut (a French Lycée called “Collège Notre-Dame de Jamhour”), I had the opportunity to pursue my studies in France, thanks to a merit scholarship for a very prestigious establishment. Since I was topping my classes my careers counsellor suggested I apply to French preparatory classes (“prépa”), a two-year mathematics, physics and chemistry program at the end of which you sit a competition to enter engineering school (The French Grande Ecole d’ingénieurs). I actually applied while telling my parents very little, since for them, there was “no way for me to go study abroad”. The game changer was that I actually got accepted…. and was tempted to go! So I had to persuade my parents, mostly my mum to let me go fulfill my ambitions. She knew I could do it, but I think she was scared to have me so far away, especially at this young age. Once she agreed, everything else fell into place like dominos.

So the adventure was ON! From that moment, time was just flying by. I spent two preparatory intensive years for the Ecole d’Ingénieurs entrance exams, and was able to get into my school of choice: Ecole Centrale Paris. During my studies there, I was granted my wish to do a semester abroad in Australia thanks to an exchange partnership between UQ and Ecole Centrale Paris. The rest is history!

What was the motivation to do your studies abroad?

I had the chance to be accepted in a good school in France, yes, but it wasn’t easy getting my parents’ blessing to leave so young. They would have to be OK with a choice that fits me best, even if hard and painful for them, especially my mother. They eventually made the altruistic decision and give me their consent. I was the only Lebanese person in the preparatory classes I attended and also the first in my engineering school since several years. At a certain point, I felt I should make Lebanese women proud as their “representative” in this study field.

Were you scared about the move?

When I came to France for the prep classes I was 18 years old and had never even taken a plane before. My parents had no frame of reference to understand what I was doing, not only for my studies but also in my daily life. I was alone here, yes, but I said to myself “making a big deal out of it it will not be of any help”. So my solution was to apply myself as hard as I could to my studies to succeed in the entrance exams ranking! After two years of prep, nearly 300 students are selected from tens of thousands of applicants. And I was one of them! Something I would never have imagined possible 2 years previously in high school.

You graduated last year from ECP with a master’s degree in engineering majoring in Energy. How did your friends and family react to this choice?

To be honest, they’re not really that surprised. When you are not from a country of peace, when there is always the threat or risk of war, your idea of “future” is more volatile. We are raised to often favour the choice of more traditional educational-pathways like medicine, law or engineering because the job-markets are safer. The goal is to graduate with an established career-path ready for the taking. That is simply the expectation in Lebanon. I would estimate that 80% of urban population has degrees in these professions: the less risk, the better chance of survival and adaptability to a non-stop changing environment.

And this expectation applies to women too?

Urban Lebanon is a kind of cultural schizophrenia – women are more and more encouraged to be independent via getting an education. They are driven to succeed at university and have well-paid and high-positioned jobs. However, as open-minded as it is Lebanon remains a country in the Middle East. Although it used to be called the “Paris of the East” or “the Orient’s Switzerland”, ideology can be conservative on some levels… such as marriage. Building a family is almost as important as getting a degree, and if you don’t, there is the perception that something is deeply wrong with you. The men don’t live this pressure because in Lebanon there is currently a ratio of 7 women to 1 man! I really see it as a joint mission – a family is a shared responsibility between two partners. It is a two-person job; these are the vital discussions to have with your husband-to-be at a certain point I guess. We will both have to make compromises to raise our children together. Sometimes, he will also have to leave work at 5PM to do the school pick-up run!

 

When I mention you to people, I say “Christelle is a fire-ball of smarts and sass”. How do you maintain your energy?

[laughs] nice description! Actually it’s my mum who recharges my batteries. This may sound cheesy but it is genuinely true for me. She knows where I come from, what I’ve done and mostly what I am capable of. She can help me relativize any situation that is bothering me. She doesn’t and can’t really know or understand the context I’m living here in France or at my Engineering School or at work, but she can objectively walk me through any problem so that I come out the other side feeling strong again for battle! My family has been very supportive in this marathon I have been running for years: they believed in me, when I failed to believe in myself. So that has kept me “sane” and fueled my heart and soul when I needed it. And it is only when I went abroad that I discovered or developed that strong link with my family; they became my cornerstone to help me up whenever I fell. “It is all in your head” as the French say, so being and staying in a psychologically stable/ healthy state of mind is vital to keep going in this stressful world.

About Claudia Schulz

Claudia Schulz is an Engineer who left Australia’s shores in 2008 to pursue post-graduate studies in International Management in Germany. Currently, Claudia is in Paris working in Key Account Management for a global engineering solutions provider.She is passionate about raising awareness of gender-roles in the international workplace, connecting people, language, literature, and croissants.Has been described as sassy on more than one occasion (thank you, high-school debating).Life goals (in no particular order): attend a TED Conference, travel through Turkey, obtain a PhD, buy an oven (not an easy feat for a Parisian-sized apartment).

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