LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 1, 2023) — For Ashtarout Ammar, the journey to the University of Kentucky wasn’t an easy one. Originally from a small town in the east mountains of Lebanon near the Syrian border, Ammar grew up in an area where access to higher education was extremely limited, especially for women. Now, she is close to achieving her dream of finishing her Ph.D. in engineering at the University of Kentucky.
"Growing up in Lebanon where the political climate was unstable and later on with the Syrian war going on, it seemed like you’re living in a zone that is always susceptible to conflicts,” said Ammar. “When I was young, I always had this dream of going to college and studying engineering, as a first-generation student and where no one my family is an engineer, finding my way to college was challenging.”
In Lebanon, Ammar’s only option for studying engineering at the undergraduate level meant leaving her small town and moving to the capital city of Beirut, where she studied at Lebanese University, the only public institution in Lebanon.
“The rate of acceptance there is very low due to the lack of options in Lebanon,” said Ammar. “It certainly made the application process stressful. Thankfully, I was admitted, and it was the start of following my dream.”
After completing her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, she assumed she would find a job rather than pursue a master’s degree. However, as her education culminated, the economy in Lebanon was struggling, making the job market particularly challenging. For Ammar, there was also one other major obstacle.
“I began to realize as I started the job search process that it’s extremely hard as a woman to find a job in civil engineering in Lebanon," she said.
With a challenging job market, Ammar decided to take a chance and apply for a major scholarship to attend the prestigious American University of Beirut. She was accepted, and started work on her graduate degree in civil engineering with an emphasis on geotechnical engineering.
After receiving her master’s degree, Ammar worked at the American University of Beirut as a researcher and taught several undergraduate courses at a private university in south Lebanon.
“This combination of teaching and research was perfect,” she said. “I knew then that I wanted to fully pursue a career in academia, which meant I needed to get my Ph.D.”
She applied to several universities and received a fellowship from the University of Kentucky. She decided to move halfway around the world to achieve her dream.
Now working toward a Ph.D. in civil engineering at UK, Ammar’s research focuses on data and infrastructure. She can trace her current research to her multi-disciplinary background.
“My bachelor’s and master’s degree, even though both were in civil engineering, gave me a wide variety of knowledge and avenues of study. It led me to my current research, which is focused on data and infrastructure. The foundation was there to take my research in whatever direction I wanted to, and these two areas are so crucial to our modern world. It just made sense.”
Her emphasis on infrastructure was also inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact.
“COVID-19 showed a lot of the problems with infrastructure in America, especially in urban areas. The pandemic really solidified the worthiness of this focus. It’s an area in which there will be an immense need moving forward and will prove so valuable to so many people.”
As she finishes up her dissertation this spring and reflects on her time at the university, she hopes to enjoy her time on campus and her time with mentors and fellow students.
“I arrived on campus for one semester, and then the pandemic hit. It was hard. So now, I’m just trying to enjoy my time in-person on this vibrant campus," she said.
Ammar hopes to finish her dissertation this spring and continue her journey in the United States with a career in academia. Through it all, she credits her mentors at UK with helping her achieve her dreams and supporting her along the way.
“My mentors here in the College of Engineering have been so incredibly supportive. They’ve helped me grow as a researcher, an academic, as an educator. I’m so grateful for their work and support.”
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