Updated: May 19, 2020
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Hometown: Bay Area, California
Undergraduate: Environmental Economics and Policy at UC Berkeley, Minor in City Planning
Masters: Urban Planning at Harvard Graduate School of Design
Field: Tech / Social Impact
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m Palestinian-American and grew up in the suburbs near San Francisco. I’m a travel addict and have lived in San Francisco, Boston, Washington DC, Beirut, Ramallah, and most recently London. I transitioned from a career in government into the tech sector and have found my sweet spot in the tech for good space. I’m lucky to have had some of the coolest work experiences including working closely with the government of Sierra Leone and interviewing Syrian refugees in three different continents. I’ve had some phenomenal mentors help me along the way and I’m passionate about paying that forward.
How did you prepare for the college application process?
The truth is, I didn’t prepare much. My high school advisors made sure we took our SAT’s and wrote our personal statements, but I didn’t do much research (the internet wasn’t as great as it is now) and I had no idea what I was passionate about or what to study. Growing up in California, our advisors pushed us to apply to the UC and CSU universities, so I did and I ended up at Berkeley.
Looking back, I wish someone had encouraged me to apply to some private universities or helped me take a systematic approach to learning more about different career options.
How is applying for a masters different from applying for an undergraduate degree?
The college application process tends to be very standardized. To apply for a master’s degree, you need to be a lot more focused and independent. There are countless master’s degrees out there and you need to figure out what you want and how best to tailor your application to that program.
How did funding fit in the picture? Tell us more about this process and any advice you may have for others?
I knew funding would be a struggle so very early into my senior year of high school I started a spreadsheet where I tracked every single scholarship or fellowship program I could find. I looked for anything that I could qualify for based on my academics, hometown, gender, ethnicity, etc. I applied to every single one even if I thought I didn’t stand a chance. It was a ton of work, but this was the best thing I did for myself and I wouldn’t have been able to attend Berkeley or Harvard if I hadn’t done this.
I assumed I couldn’t apply to private schools because I wouldn’t be able to afford the sticker price. Ironically, many private schools offer more generous aid funding than the UC system. My advice is to look closely into the scholarship programs offered by the university as well as outside independent scholarships.
Is there anything that you wish someone had told you to consider when you were applying for grad school?
Grad school is not for everyone. I’m very happy I went to grad school, but it's not for everyone. I know people who dropped out in the middle of the school year. Think carefully about whether it's right for you, visit the program if you can, and talk to the career center about your future options. Reach out to friends and mentors who can share their experience and advice. This is especially true if you’ll be taking on debt for the degree. Take a realistic look at how long it will take you to pay back the loan and ask yourself if it’s worth it.
It will go by very quickly. Whether it’s undergrad or grad school, your education will be over before you know it, so savor it. Learn as much as you can and enjoy the only time in your life that your responsibilities may be relatively small.
Invest in marketable skills as well as fun ones. Take the time to learn important skills that will help you land a job. Join clubs and organizations that will expand your network. But also take the time to learn things that you’ve always been excited about, like learning a foreign language for fun.
You don’t have to get a job right away. In the weeks leading up to graduation, most people panic (myself included) about finding a job. While you need to put in the work to network and apply for jobs, it's ok to take some time off and really shop for the right role for you. You don’t need to accept the first job offer you get right away.
Take time in between undergrad and grad school. I went straight from undergrad to grad school. While I had an awesome grad school experience, I wasn’t as focused or targeted as my older classmates. Taking even just 1-2 years to work before going to grad school can help you make the most of your grad school experience.
Did you receive any mentorship/support as you were applying to grad school? What advice do you have for students who may not have access to these resources?
Yes! I received tons of mentorship throughout my application process simply because I sought it out. I’ve found that people tend to be tremendously helpful if you simply ask them. I had friends and mentors read my applications and I had professors advise me on the application process. Getting help is super important and nobody should go through this process alone.
What do you think students often get “wrong” about the application process?
Not personalizing your application to the program is a huge mistake. Whether you’re applying for undergrad or grad school, you should make it clear why you’re specifically interested in the school/program you’re applying to. This will speak volumes about your passion and interests.
What tips do you have regarding how to write a compelling recommendation letter?
The most important way to receive a compelling letter of recommendation is to do compelling work that catches your recommender’s attention. Develop relationships with your teachers/professors by doing research projects with them, volunteering, etc. This gives them something to write about you in your letter.
When it comes to asking for the letter, my advice is to always make the process as easy as possible for the recommender. For example, offer to help draft the letter for them, or give them a list of bullet points with the points you want them to touch on. And be sure to give them lots of advance notice (preferably at least one month).
What advice do you have for writing a strong personal statement?
Start brainstorming early so that you have plenty of time to get your thoughts on paper.
Any other advice do you have for students who are interested in applying?
Start researching early and talk to as many people as possible. Don’t be afraid to reach out to friends or contacts who are a couple of years older from you so you can learn from their experiences.