Muhra Almuhairi is living proof that you should never let go of your dreams lightly.
As a hard-working high school pupil in Abu Dhabi, she set her sights high, vowing to one day study at Harvard University
Now 46, she is ready to turn student once more as she starts her master’s degree in public administration at the US seat of learning in September.
Born and raised in the UAE capital, the mother-of-four has worked for more than 18 years in federal and local government, and is keen to bring back the knowledge of public policy she will gain to benefit her country.
A penchant for seeking knowledge and not taking no for an answer are what define Ms Almuhairi.
“Going to Harvard University has always been a dream since I was in high school," she said. “Back then, I did not even think I could go outside the country [for studies] …I could just do what was available.
“When people talk about Harvard University they talk about the prestige, the network, the knowledge.
“This amazing chance came to me when I got for a fellowship through which Harvard University would sponsor 100 per cent of my tuition fees.
"I know that very few people who apply get enrolled and even fewer get a scholarship."
Ms Almuhairi is no stranger to the realm of education, having completed her bachelor's in business information technology in 2000, and then her executive master’s in business administration in 2005.
She went on to acquire two master’s degrees in education at Deakin University in Australia in 2008, and at Higher Colleges of Technology in the UAE in 2009.
'No age limit on achievement'
After taking a hiatus from education, she returned to university again in 2012, and finished her doctorate in business administration at Abu Dhabi University in 2015.
“There is no age limit for dreaming or achieving an ambition,” Ms Almuhairi said.
“I believe that every woman or young adult who wants to do something, can achieve that so long as they keep going.
“Sometimes the time is not right, but there will be another time. Just keep going."
She reminisced about her graduation day when she finished her doctorate in 2015, and her daughters were there to support her.
“My children attended my graduation and my eldest daughter told me ‘Mom, now you are raising the bar,'" she said.
Hale Education Group, a consultancy in Dubai that offers mentoring and admissions counselling, helped Ms Almuhairi apply to Harvard University.
She will be starting her mid-career master's in public administration, and will focus on the wellness of government employees.
The programme is designed for mid-career professionals and candidates need to have over 10 years of work experience.
Thirst for learning remains unquenched
"It's very hard to get admission at Harvard, and the application process is very complicated,” she said.
She said she had to write several essays, provide evidence of her grades, and letters of recommendations, and create a video based on a pop-up question.
"The essays are what make applying to Harvard different as you have to review yourself,” she said.
“The network, the people, the diversity is what I am most excited about.
"I am looking forward to having conversations with, and learning from, people from different countries.
"I am excited about learning about policy-making because that is needed in the social and human resources sector, and that learning is what I hope to bring back to the UAE.”
Ms Almuhairi currently works as an adviser of learning and development at Human Resource Authority in Abu Dhabi.
Straight out of university, she started teaching at the Higher Colleges of Technology, and was later the chairwoman of business administration for 10 years.
She taught information technology, project management, and business administration.
She also worked as an adviser for community service and development and then as the director of programmes at Abu Dhabi School of Government.
Even when she was busy with work, she never forgot her love for learning and wished to return to teaching some day.
"I am a life-long learner, and teaching is a way of sharing your knowledge and building the community," she said.
“For me, the feeling that you get at the end of the semester when you can see the progress in a pupil, that is very rewarding."
Being at university every other weekend meant missing social engagements or parties and not having a weekend for four years while she completed her doctorate.
But, she said, her determination to succeed did not allow her to see the challenges along the way.
Daughters inspired by mother's determination
Ms Almuhairi's daughters, aged 11,15, 19, and 20, are proud of their mother's achievements.
"I am inspired by my mom pursuing her studies because she keeps learning throughout her life, even after working, and it encourages me to do the same in the future," said Shamma Al Shamsi, 20.
Her 15-year-old sister Aisha echoed those sentiments, even if she does not yet fully understand her mother's drive to succeed.
"It is very weird that my mom still wants to study, but I like that because she wants to do more for her and our future," she said.