By Ainslie Coghill
Joyce Ibrahim remembers a conversation she had five years ago with a teacher in a hallway of her high school, the outcome of which helped shape her future.
Uncertain about what program to pursue in university, Ibrahim was feeling stressed after submitting applications for early admission to various schools.
“I was having this thought of ‘I’m only in grade 12, and I’m afraid to choose a path where I end up wasting my time before realizing it’s not what I want,’” she says. “I was panicking. I was having a bad afternoon, walking down the hallway, and then I saw Ms. O’Hagan,” says Ibrahim.
Pamela O’Hagan was Ibrahim’s favourite teacher.
“I walked right up to her and asked what she took in university,” she says. “I was surprised when she told me it was electrical engineering, because I didn’t think it was very common for women.” O’Hagan, who she deeply admired, encouraged Ibrahim to consider whether it might be a good fit for her future.
While O’Hagan may not remember that particular conversation, she remembers Ibrahim as a responsible, hardworking student.
“I looked forward to marking her tests and assignments because they were so neat and her ideas were always presented in an organized way that was easy to follow,” she says. O’Hagan has been teaching math and physics at St. Francis Xavier for nine years, since the school opened.
“I try to introduce the students to as many guest speakers and STEM-related opportunities as possible,” says O’Hagan. After years working at Nortel Networks in Kanata, O’Hagan says she found her true calling as a teacher.
“I’m very proud of my engineering degree, and am extremely grateful for the work experience that I gained, but I absolutely love teaching,” she says. “I know that I made the right decision, but I also know that I would be a very different teacher today if I hadn’t gone through an engineering program or worked in the field for several years.”
O’Hagan was humbled to learn she had an impact on her former student’s decision to pursue engineering.
Ibrahim, born in Canada but raised from ages 3 to 15 in Lebanon, returned to Ottawa with her mother and sister at age 16, and her father joined them a year later. Her favourite school subject, physics, also happened to be her top grade. She attributes those high marks to O’Hagan’s patience and teaching style.
“I developed a good foundation,” says Ibrahim. “Even my sister, who hates physics, understood it better after going to Ms. O’Hagan’s office hours. Sometimes when I’m facing a certain concept or problem in engineering now, I find myself going back to my high school physics notes, because we’re now building on those same concepts.”
Joyce, 21, is now in her fourth year of Carleton’s electrical engineering program, and is the Chair of Carleton’s IEEE branch. Without encouragement from O’Hagan, Ibrahim says she may not have felt confident enough to pursue engineering.
“A role model can inspire you to commit to something. If your mindset is negative in grade 11 and 12, or you don’t have that push to succeed, you’ll be less excited about the university experience,” she says.
Ibrahim has other role models, too. Both her parents, and her aunt, encouraged her to pursue her passions. They are all very proud of the success she’s had.
“The move here from Lebanon was not easy for my parents. Their first language was not English, and they struggled a lot,” she says. “I saw them working hard to put us in a stable place. I wanted to choose something that wasn’t easy, so that I can work hard and give back to them what they gave to me.”
“When I told them I accepted the offer to Carleton University for electrical engineering, my dad was excited. He also likes fiddling with electricity and stuff, and he works as a technician. He said to me ‘When you’re graduated, you’ll be working with me or I’ll be working for you.’”
In the meantime, Ibrahim and her father often find themselves working together on projects around the house.
“My aunt bought a new house recently, and I was working with my dad to rewire lighting. Moments like those make me really happy,” she says.
Ibrahim’s mother, who recognized her daughter’s leadership strengths, had a feeling she would become the Chair of Carleton’s branch of IEEE – the world’s largest technical professional society.
This is Ibrahim’s fourth year with the group, and she oversees all activities, other executive positions, and holds bi-weekly meetings.
Ibrahim has received great support and advice from fellow members of the IEEE community on campus.
“I didn’t know I could work on cars with my electrical engineering degree until I met someone in IEEE who introduced me to embedded systems in first year,” she says.
Her dream is to work with cars, and she hopes to merge software and hardware courses she has taken to open the door to a career in integrated systems and user interfaces for electric vehicles that are good for the environment.
This December, Ibrahim returned to her former high school to see O’Hagan, and to thank her for making an impact on her life.
She passed by her old locker and a large, colourful mural she painted many years ago which is still on display in the hallway.
O’Hagan, a woman with a positive energy and presence that some teachers seem to effortlessly possess, greeted Ibrahim with a hug. She had set aside some time before her next class, and invited Ibrahim up to her classroom.
In the science lab she remembered well, Ibrahim listened carefully as O’Hagan offered valuable career advice and encouragement. It was a conversation that closely mirrored the one they had five years earlier.
The chat with O’Hagan left Ibrahim feeling invigorated, reassured, and even more confident about entering the next chapter of her life in the engineering field.
Her former teacher wished her well and walked her to the end of the hall before circling back to a growing group of students assembling in her classroom, waiting to learn from her.
And it is heartening to know that they will.
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