They say the best careers are built from chasing learning curves. A growing number of UAE residents are taking this a step further by quitting their jobs to go back to school.

Michele Mia Reni, 44, worked as a health club manager and project manager for various companies in the UAE before quitting her full-time job last year to pursue an MBA in Digital Marketing.

A graduate of physiotherapy, Michele says that her jobs in the management field pushed her to take further studies in digital marketing, which she considers an integral part of modern-day management.

‘I worked in a totally different area to what I studied, and I wanted to do a course that would bring credibility to my work, so I decided to get an MBA,’ says the Sharjah expat, who signed up for her master’s from the UK-based University of Wolverhampton through its UAE affiliate, Westford University.

Then 43, Michele was one of the oldest students in her class. ‘But I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and I made some irreplaceable friends for life,’ she says.

While attending weekend classes onsite at the university in Dubai, Michele says her biggest challenge was ‘juggling family obligations and studies’. It was a hurdle she managed to overcome with patience and perseverance, which she says helped her reach ‘an attainable goal’.

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Logistics was another issue. With her family literally going in different directions – son attending school in Dubai, her surgeon husband going to work in a hospital in Umm Al Quwain and her daughter going to medical school in Ras Al Khaimah –  Sharjah became the perfect hub.

Going back to school or college after a long break to pursue your dream degree is definitely no easy task. ‘It’s challenging,’ she admits. ‘But if you are determined to work hard and spend some sleepless nights completing your projects, then it is achievable. I just had to adjust my schedule to keep everything on track. My time management skills over the years also helped,’ she says. Michele is looking forward to travelling to the UK in September for the convocation ceremony.

Michele with her husband Reni Paulose

Does she recommend this path to other expats in the UAE? ‘Of course,’ she says. ‘I would definitely recommend it to anyone willing to put in a little bit of hard work.’

Michele says that times are changing and one needs to stay ahead or at least abreast of the times. ‘It’s competitive out there; you certainly want to have the finger on the pulse. Mums who are planning on getting back to work after a break having children should consider it,’ she says.

Michele says she is looking forward to picking up a full-time job in social media marketing or running her own consultancy. ‘Women should still dream after 40,’ she says. The sense of joy and fulfilment of achieving an academic milestone whatever age you may be is surely worth all the pain, she feels.

From PR officer to master’s student

For Syrian national Shireen Deeb, it was the pull of practising law that made her give up a lucrative job as PR officer at Emirates Airline. Shireen, 40, had lived and worked in Dubai for 10 years before moving to the US to take up a Master of Law programme designed for foreign-trained lawyers who want to practise law in the US.

After handling the public relations of the Dubai-based carrier, Shireen decided to revisit her studies in law. She attended the course in the 2017-2018 school year at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

‘While I spent eight years of my life studying Law in my home country of Syria, I never received the opportunity to put my theoretical knowledge into practice. Instead, I pursued employment in a different field.  However, practising law still remains my passion,’ she says.

‘When I relocated to the US with my family, I decided to go back to my original profession as a lawyer and therefore, I pursued this higher education that paved my way to achieve my goal,’ she says.

Shireen Deeb with her family at the graduation ceremony

The decision came with a hefty price tag, but thankfully she was able to stretch her savings for her tuition, which was partly covered by a scholarship.

Was it difficult to quit work to go back to school?

‘I believe that there is no wrong time to make the right decision. While I knew that we, as a family, couldn’t afford to leave work to study, my husband and I decided to take the chance because we both believe that higher education is rewarding. We were not wrong. Thankfully, with this decision, I am back now into law practice,’ she says with pride.

She admits there were challenges along the way. As a mother of three, Shireen says her main challenge was taking care of her family while she went back to becoming a full-time student.

‘During my studies, I felt tired and overwhelmed at times. My family, as much as they love me, weren’t always as supportive as I needed them to be. We all struggled at the beginning to make adjustments,’ she says.

Eventually, things fell into place as she found the balance in juggling her new schedules. ‘The ideal solution that I came across was to consider my study as a full-time job. I used to go to school from 8am until 5pm. During this period, I made sure I finished my homework and prepared for my next day’s classes. This technique helped me finish my degree with honours!’

Learning about a completely different legal system was also a big challenge. ‘The legal system in the US is different from what I know in Syria or even in the UAE. The US is a Common Law country while Syria and UAE are Civil Law countries. The main difference between the two systems is that in common law countries, case law – in the form of published judicial opinions – is of primary importance, whereas in civil law systems, codified statutes predominate,’ she explains.

What were the reactions of friends and family when she decided to go back to university?

‘Everyone around me was so supportive of this decision. My family members, especially my husband Ali Ibrahim, my ex-colleagues and even my ex-boss were super excited about my decision. I felt motivated,’ she says.

Shireen is now a contract attorney for a law firm in Pittsburgh that specialises in oil and gas practice. She plans to return to the UAE in a couple of years to serve the local community.