Each student who finds their way to an MBA program has a unique path, yet it feels like a rarity to hear someone say that an MBA wasn’t even on their radar until shortly before they found themselves pursuing one. That was, however, the case for me. Going to business school was never part of my plan. In fact, I didn’t even have previous knowledge of what an MBA was, nor did I know anyone who had ever completed an MBA until I found myself randomly in a conversation with a friend who was evaluating Masters options outside of the country.
Let me take a step back, however, and tell you a bit about myself. My name is Housna El Gamah, and I’m a second year at Chicago Booth. I’m also one of the first Moroccan females to attend Booth’s Full-Time Program, and the only female from the MENA (Middle East North Africa) region in the Class of 2021. My path to get here is about as unconventional as they come. Especially considering that most Moroccans who choose to leave the country for higher education choose France as their study abroad destination.
After finishing high school with honors and completing an undergraduate degree, I focused on helping minorities in my country instead of going straight into the business sector. For seven months I volunteered with two different NGOs. The first was dedicated to improving the lives of single mothers, taking care of their children during the day and helping them find jobs, and the second was focused on volunteers visiting remote villages in the countryside, trying to promote the importance of early education to families from those areas. Both were hard tasks that involved cultural barriers, but the work felt like an important and impactful service to my community and myself.
Once I decided to work in a more traditional setting, consulting was my first stop. I started as an IT consultant focused on serving financial clients, and, after two years, ended up working as a project manager on risk management projects. During that period, inspired by the desire of pushing my boundaries, and looking for spaces that could offer me a more dynamic environment, I began to ponder the idea of an MBA. Suddenly this became a strong personal and professional dream, but one that felt nearly impossible to achieve. Even still, I had this feeling inside of me, this force that always kept me moving forward, always kept me instinctively pushing my boundaries and taking me to places I never thought I would go.
It was this inner voice that encouraged me to deep dive into that new world of information gathering, and, ultimately, my decision to apply. English, my fourth language, was the first barrier followed quickly by challenges of studying for the GMAT and writing all of the essays on my own. While I’ve since learned that many of my peers either worked with consultants or had encountered others through work who had pursued this path and could advise them, I wasn’t even aware of those options. Instead, the process was wholly my own. In fact, when I applied to the first batch of business schools, I hadn’t told any of my family or friends about my plan. Not only that, but Chicago Booth was not among them since I had convinced myself there was no chance I would get in. So, imagine my surprise when I was accepted and received full scholarship offers from all of the schools I applied to, including acceptance into the Fulbright U.S. Student Program.
Once I got over my initial shock, my inner voice spoke up again and it felt like a hint I should aim higher by applying to Booth. When I read about Booth for the first time, I fell in love. The idea of the flexible curriculum meant so much to me. Not just for the typical reasons of wanting to select areas of interest, but because it resonate with my desire to make my own choices – now here was a program that would allow me to be in full control of the entire experience? I couldn’t help but feel inspired and risked losing my Fulbright scholarship by deciding to apply to Booth…just three days prior to the deadline.
You know already that I’m a second year Boothie, so all of that hard work and risk paid off, but coming to business school in the US hasn’t been without its challenges. I’m pleased to say though that those have been balanced by great experiences. Starting right at the beginning of the MBA, I joined a Random Walk, a traditional trip organized by Booth students and that takes place to multiple destinations around the world just prior to starting classes. That trip to Belize has been the highlight of my Booth experience. I visited amazing beaches, practiced snorkeling, and met my first classmates. Suddenly the dream was a reality. Once in Chicago, I didn’t miss a moment and quickly pursued positions of leadership. I became a co-chair for the MENA and in the Muslims in Business Clubs. Outside of schools, having dinners with people from multiple cultures and learning from them is one of my favorite ways to spend my time. Not to mention how open I am in sharing my own background with them.
At each stage of the last two years, I feel further affirmed in my decision to pursue an MBA. In some moments it’s hard to imagine what my life might look like currently had one little acronym—MBA—not entered my world by a mere stroke of luck followed by a lot of hard work. Instead, I spent last summer interning at Microsoft, and recently signed with Amazon for a full-time position once I graduate from Booth. The desire for a new life brought me here, but I haven’t forgotten my roots. In fact, they inspire me each day…to educate my peers about the culture and opportunities throughout MENA and to consider returning to Morocco someday to pursue a career in Fintech there.
My path to Booth was not a clear one. In fact, I asked myself a number of times why I was complicating things for myself, but the reality is that this is who I am, I’m always pushing my boundaries. With any luck, telling my story means that there will be a clearer path to an MBA for other women like me. That one day there will be a strong and vibrant Muslim community at Booth and across US-based MBA programs. Could it even be your path?