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Syria to Malaysia to Ann Arbor: Alaa Shahin Goes From Open Online Course to U-M Graduate

Alaa Shahin first took Colleen Van Lent’s open online course; next, she became a U-M student and Van Lent’s assistant as a graduate student; now she works as a young advocate for women in tech

Sam Deleon-Castillo, Communications Fellow 

Alaa Shahin was always willing to start over, but she was never willing to give up on her dream of a world-class education. Her journeys led her from her homeland in Syria to Malaysia, and then to the U.S. Each time, she felt like she was not just starting her education over, but starting her life from scratch. Each time she was also determined to persevere.  

Born and raised in Syria, education was always a primary focus. Alaa was an exceptional student, and she always yearned for more. After fleeing conflict in Syria, she relocated to Malaysia, where she was determined to continue her education. Eager to find a way to continue learning, Alaa enrolled in on-demand open online courses to build up skills while pursuing scholarship opportunities for further study.

She eventually obtained that scholarship, but was on the move again after just one year, relocating to the U.S. From there, she said, she spent two years in community college while applying to universities in Michigan. Furthering her education had always been her plan, but she didn’t know where or how it would come. But Alaa continued learning, and continued applying to colleges, and she continued taking courses offered by the University of Michigan. 

Those online courses opened a path for her to not only continue learning but led her down a path that went from Malaysia to the U.S. to being a student at U-M in Ann Arbor, and eventually to work for the organization that built the open online courses she first discovered. 

Web Design for Everybody 

As a student, Alaa had always been interested in exploring STEM fields. She said she wanted to seek a top-notch education. Because of the war, that was not possible to find at home in Syria. 

When Alaa stumbled on the “Web Design for Everybody: Basics of Web Development & Coding” course series, taught by Colleen van Lent, teaching professor and lecturer at U-M’s School of Information, she immediately fell in love. It was not only van Lent’s clarity of instruction but also her personal presence, which she could feel even though they were separated by a computer screen.  

Once I finished the course, I took the certification and was like, yeah, I love this; this is what I want to do.”

Alaa Shahin, UMSI Masters Graduate, ’23

“At first, I didn’t know the course was from the University of Michigan. I just saw a web design course that seemed to cover everything. So I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ It was my first ever online course, and I just fell in love,” Shahin said. “Van Lent’s personality and her way of bringing things to reality is so appreciated.”  

She liked how van Lent interacted with her students and said the relationship she formed with her instructor was a huge factor in her success. The clarity with which van Lent explained complex topics was impressive, and the flexibility of the online format helped Alaa transcend language barriers and let her progress at her own pace. 

“Once I finished the course, I took the certification and was like, yeah, I love this; this is what I want to do,” Shahin said.

The online format spoke to her, and she took more courses. Eventually, she realized where her education was taking her – the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus, and that would eventually lead her to the School of Information.  

From Online to In-Person

Upon being accepted to the university, Alaa scanned the available courses. She saw one of her first classes would be with van Lent. 

“I was like, oh my gosh! It’s the same professor; I knew it was the same university, but now I can take a course with the same professor. I told myself, ‘I have to take this course in person!'”

This would later become Alaa’s opportunity to serve as van Lent’s graduate student instructor (GSI). 

“One of the best parts about teaching is watching students create a community, and Alaa was a community builder,” van Lent said of having Shahin as both a student and a GSI. “She had a way of asking questions that helped me to explain concepts more clearly to everyone.  When she applied as a GSI the following semester, I knew that I was going to be lucky to have her in my classroom.”

First inspired by van Lent, who made her online learning experience so impactful, she was now shadowing and assisting the person she used to only see on her computer screen back in Malaysia. Her interest in web design evolved into a passion for user experience design. She realized her positive experience with the online course was no accident–it was because of the thoughtful way the course was built and the technology utilized for online learners.

After so many stops and starts in recent years, Shahin decided to waste no time. She obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the School of Information in three years while continuing to use her free time to take online courses to learn and explore specific skills in technology. 

Working at the Center for Academic Innovation 

In another pivotal turn, Alaa’s journey landed her where van Lent’s course was built – the Center for Academic Innovation as a Student Fellow. 

Cait Hayward, the center’s director of research and analytics, spoke to students where Alaa was serving as a GSI. That led to a coffee meeting with Hayward, where she learned about user experience design and other opportunities available to student fellows at the center. 

Shahin applied for and got a position as a student fellow. At the center, Alaa could take the concepts she learned on Michigan Online and use them in her fellowship role on the research and analytics team to help the center advance the future of education. 

Not only was Shahin in Ann Arbor as a University of Michigan student, but she was working with her most-admired online instructor, working at the center where her favorite courses were built, exploring her passion for user experience, and presenting research among peers and mentors.   

As part of her work, she conducted more than 100 hours of interviews about their use of ECoach, a tailored communication platform to help students succeed in large lecture courses where one-on-one instruction is impossible. It required conducting a series of regular interviews with students using the tool. This was a task made for a people person like Alaa. 

“We wanted to interview these students to improve the ECoach platform. So I said, you know, I love talking to people, so why not let me do the interviews? And actually, after four months, I did 104 interviews. That is wild to me when I look back.”

She was later able to contribute to the evaluation of the data collected. She presented findings at the center’s annual research showcase, inviting researchers from U-M’s campus and beyond to present and discuss their findings. 

‘It Changed Everything for Me’ 

As a young woman from Syria, Alaa said she could never have imagined moving to America as a student and getting an education at the University of Michigan. She said friends back home were “obsessed” with the university and its online classes, so her friends and family were ecstatic when she announced she would attend U-M in person. 

It was a dream come true, and Alaa said the experience as a graduate student and Student Fellow was more than she could have imagined. 

Alaa has always yearned for more and kept chasing her educational dreams no matter where they led her. Now, she works as an education officer at Odoo in Dubai, UAE. This latest move was not forced on her because of instability at home. Instead, it was a move she wanted to make. 

I have my bachelor’s, my Master’s, a minor, and the work experience I need to live the life I want, and the life I am building.”

Alaa Shahin, UMSI Masters Graduate, ’23

“I have my bachelor’s, my Master’s, a minor, and the work experience I need to live the life I want, and the life I am building,” Shahin said.  

She also gives back in ways that allow her to serve as an example and inspire other young women in the tech field. She is taking part in the Google Global Ambassador for Women Techmakers program and as a facilitator for the #IAmRemarkable initiative, helping to inspire and celebrate the accomplishments of women in tech. 

Shahin earned everything, every step of the way. Among those first steps, when everything seemed uncertain, was asking herself what she was passionate about and seeking out online learning opportunities to explore that passion. 

 “You could study anything you want, any time you want, in any location you want. It changed everything for me.” 

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