New Year, New You? If fitness is your thing (or not! No judgement) then you're in for a treat.
Here's Push presenter Moj Taylor's exclusive interview with personal trainer Kaoutar Hannach: read on for her insight on everything from student life and choosing the right degree, to how she found a career she loves.
MT: What was your journey from sixth form to uni like, and why did you choose to go?
KH: My journey at the start was a bit confusing, as I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I liked the science and was just curious about a lot of it as it gives you a lot of answers.
So I did Applied Science at college, and obviously in our family you have to go to university – you can’t just stop in college. So I went to uni and did an engineering degree in Medical Science.
I like art and design but also science, so the engineering and medical field was something that was appealing at first.
MT: You said you had to go because of your parents, was that just the way it was in your family?
KH: I had to go, but I wanted to because without a university degree, I felt I hadn’t finished the educational journey. The journey to me was school, college, university, and then you can go and do whatever you want after that.
Stopping somewhere in the middle wasn't something I wanted to do.
MT: How did you come to decide on your specific degree course?
KH: I did a test online, where you answer loads of questions then it tells you what kind of degree you could go for. The test results for me said Medical Engineering, so I was like “okay, but I’m not that good at maths."
So I did a whole year’s foundation degree in Engineering at Queen Mary University of London, obviously to get a taste of the engineering world itself, physics, maths and mechanics.
After that I thought I could either go for Medical Engineering (which is a lot of maths), or I could go for Medical Material Science which was a combination of engineering, medical and material sciences, so you get to do more sciences within the course. I went for that one instead.
MT: So what made you choose Queen Mary?
KH: Well, on UCAS you choose up to five, and Queen Mary wasn’t one of them as I applied initially for Radiography, but I didn’t get into those universities, so I thought "well, I have to do something else".
Also I’m very indecisive in my life, so I thought “why not do an Engineering foundation degree; if I like it I'll keep going, if I don’t I'll just go and do a science-based degree”.
It was a bit challenging, but from my foundation I could go on and choose any science or engineering full degree, over another three years.
MT: What were your experiences, looking back, of your time at your university?
KH: I loved Queen Mary: the atmosphere, the environment... I still walk in there now and I miss it. The library – the moment you walk in – the ground floor is just to socialise, there's no one there to work. If you see someone studying, they're not studying, trust me!
If you want to study then go upstairs because you’re not allowed to speak (but we still did).
I remember [24-hour opening] during exams and indeed I did do all-nighters, just twice in my life and I regretted that as I need to sleep. There’s a Costa next to the library so they can plough you with caffeine.
MT: What was the structure of your course? We at Push advise 10,000s of students each year on how different every one of the 70,000s UK courses can be from one another.
KH: It was a mixture of everything; we did seminars and lectures and at the end of the year we had exams on each module.
It's lectures the whole year, plus case studies, assignments and a lot of coursework. Throughout the whole year we did, let’s say, different medical, engineering and science modules so it was a lot of medical material science.
How big a part was the quality of the teaching? Because it's a big thing now with the new TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) that they’re bringing into universities, as some students are bothered that teaching is sometimes the weakest part of their course. Seeing as you may not see them much, that quality's even more apparent.
KH: That is true. I had problems with some teachers because with some I couldn’t really understand what they were saying.
Their delivery and their... hm... I’m sure the teachers were qualified and had done their PhDs: they know what they're talking about and what they want to say, but when it comes to delivery – it's not that well delivered.
It's an accent thing, it's a language thing. I just don’t understand what they say. I tried to go for a couple of lectures, but when I realised “I’m not getting anything out of this class, I might as well just read the powerpoint in my own time”.
It's not good because I missed a lot of classes and can tell they know what they're talking about, and they're passionate, but the key points I need to know and take notes on – I’m just lost trying to understand what the lecturer is talking about.
What do you wish you could tell your 17-year old self about careers choices and aspirations, if you could hop back right now in a time machine?
KH: I would just say “don’t stress too much about it”, because at the end of the day, I don’t know how to say this: my younger sister is 17 right now so she has to choose what A-levels and career to do.
It's really stressful right now for her and it brings it right back to how it was for me. It was very stressful. I changed my mind a hundred times about what I wanted to do after school: from a translator to bio-med, to physiotherapy.
I did all the research and I know that I have a lot of interests. I like a lot of things, so it's really hard for me to do just one thing.
I also wanted to do art at college and university, then my auntie’s husband said “do you want to be one of those people in Trafalgar Square who draws caricatures on the floor; is that what you want your career to be?” and I was like “no”.
Then he said “so do science” and I was like “okay, fine, I will do science”.
MT: Right, so he was just thinking “that course equals that career” without considering all the other successful things you could do?
KH: Yeah, in my head I didn’t think you can be an artist and you can open up an exhibition.
I didn’t know you could actually make a living out of these things so it was very stressful, so I would say to my younger self to not stress out and just focus on what you enjoy. Because at the end of the day, whatever you choose you'll still have to put in the same effort and it'll be as hard as everything else.
Just choose what you enjoy. That way, you will actually do good at it, and it can go somewhere, because right now in our society you can actually make a living out of anything. People make a living out of Instagram! Posting pictures and there’s no A-level in social media.
You don’t even need traditional education routes anymore; you can be a young entrepreneur. It's amazing what you can do right now – you don’t really need to go to university, but I feel like university is very important as it does change you.
It has an impact. I know that if I didn’t go to university I would be a different person sitting here. Totally different.
MT: If you could have a coffee with a girl of ethnic minority in her final year of school, with hundreds of decisions going through her mind, what would you say to her?
KH: Some girls look at, for example, engineering and they look at it and think “there’s only men in that industry” or they look at finance and think “it's only Caucasian men working in the banking sector”.
They almost accept that they won’t have a chance being black or Asian or a woman of faith. You feel like “they only want that type of person” and it's the same with fitness.
You look at health events and you observe the panel and think “they don’t want a woman of faith in there, they just want Caucasian women."
MT: Is this specific example from your personal experience of the health industry?
KH: Yes, that's from my experiences. I went to a couple of them, and it spawned the whole point of my campaign.
It's there to say: it doesn’t matter what colour you are, what you believe or what you choose to wear and what you choose to cover.
You do what you feel you need to do: if you want to be an engineer then go ahead, if you want to be a doctor or a personal trainer or an athlete or a model… just go for it.
You might be the first person to do it. Maybe other people need to see someone like them doing amazing things and breaking stereotypes to encourage them as well. Be a role model.
MT: And what if a young person really isn’t sure on what they want to do and feel they have literally no idea on their next steps? How do you choose and what do you say to them?
KH: Somehow in your journey you are going to end up doing things you don’t expect you are going to do, so if you are confused, know that everyone is and everyone is on the same wavelength.
I'm still like that; I'm doing personal training, but I still think each day “I want to do this, and this, and this... oh my god I can’t do everything at once” so just choose the one thing that you really really enjoy.
I know that if you enjoy a lot of things and do a lot, there are a lot of jobs out there where your multiple skills are needed, so if you are an artist but you also love engineering, there are a lot of engineering artists: you need art in engineering.
You need to sketch a lot of things. If you have a lot of hobbies that's great, just choose a career path that will include the skills you’ve developed in a couple of them.
At the end of the day, if you do a degree at any university, you can always go and work in anything; for example a lot of people who did my degree have now gone on to work in finance.
It’s fine; just do what you love.
MT: On that note, how did you go from your degree subject into the career you do now?
KH: since I was a young girl my mum took me to ballet, karate, but I really never stuck to any of them. I wanted to learn how to fight or dance right in that moment, as I was impatient, which is bad.
But, I always did activities related to keeping fit. It wasn’t a passion, I just did it as my mum introduced me to regular physical exercise.
Later on when I was at college my brother held my arm up and he kind of jiggled it and said “oh look, your arm jiggles: you're fat”. I said “what? I’m not fat. I’m just a bit chubby”.
Brothers are so mean. But I did think “ok, I’ll start working out a bit” so I went to classes since at college I had a lot of free time so I thought every year I will do something different like swimming or badmington.
Once I started my degree at university I visited the Queen Mary gym and it was massive. When I arrived I was like “wow – I love this gym”. Especially since they had a women’s only area, which had two squat racks, and they had barbells and plates: it was amazing.
That's all I need – to deadlift, to squat and bench.
I did a female weight-lifting competition at uni, and it was a great experience, because I had to perform infront of people, it was really nerve-wracking... to the point where my belly was hurting. I had never done something like that before, but I trained for it and it was such a good experience.
My brother then suggested we do a personal training course in the summer holidays, and so I did that. I then had to go back to uni to do my third year and dissertation.
After I finished the degree course, I suddenly thought “well I don’t want to start applying to loads of engineering jobs” because firstly I’d need to apply to 100 jobs just to get one that I don’t even want to do.
All I wanted to actually do was just come to the gym and train and teach and advise people one on one that I liked exercising with. Essentially I realised I liked coaching so finished off my Personal Training course. I started to do boot camps in my neighbourhood on a communal pitch.
They would just come and we would exercise together, and if they needed extra help on their diet and nutrition I would help with that, then I moved on and started to work at Pure Gym as a trainer.
MT: Does it feel right? Because you said you can’t ever be sure, but do you feel you’re in the right space for the moment?
KH: Yes, I feel I’m in the right place for the moment, because I also still enjoy other things like design, specifically dress design, but I don’t really think about it much at the moment because I am giving 100% to personal training and to my diversity and unity campaign, but I still really love art and design and perhaps maybe in the future.
MT: And it still fits in as you have to be creative when coming up with different clients’ personal training programmes. Do you feel there are enough opportunities made for women to get into the health industry? Be it from ethnic minorities or particular religious or cultural backgrounds.
KH: I feel like there is and there isn’t. There is in the fact that anyone can go and sign up to do a personal training course if you do like to train, and you get the qualification you can then go on and work in any gym, but I feel like for women of faith and colour it stops right there.
To get to the next level where you can get sponsored by a fitness brand or something like that…it is really rare.
It's upsetting, because those people who are sponsored get a lot of exposure and therefore a lot of people take to them as role models, but if there's no diversity in that, such as women of colour and faith, then all those women have no one to look up to.
Therefore, they will always be the ones who never exercise, and not to look after themselves and not only not eat properly but not learn how to eat properly.
That's the whole point of my campaign – it's to change all of this and let women of colour and faith know they can have a careers in any industry and have a wider influence on the communities and a wider audience of people.
The only people who can currently see me are the ones in the gym, but if Adidas had a Muslim woman in their campaigns or being sponsored by their brand, a lot of Muslim women would see this and it would encourage them to start really thinking about their wellbeing.
It's not just about encouraging women to become personal trainers, it's about encouraging women to look after themselves, because when you exercise and you eat properly you become a different person in body and mind-set; you're much happier and more positive.
MT: Even in Birmingham (which has one of the highest populations of Muslims in the UK), there's a massive Adidas shop in the middle of the city centre, and I remember walking past the big posters in the windows, and thinking there wasn’t a single person from a Muslim background on the images.
KH: Exactly; and if there was, they would start strolling in and thinking “oh maybe, I’ll get some trainers and start running”.
Nike, Adidas and New Balance all do running clubs but, we don’t get to go to them or even know about them because guess what: they don’t have people like us leading those events. If they did, Muslim women would definitely start coming and that would change society big time.
MT: Also, there's media spin that there are problems with people of different backgrounds living next to each other but not integrating. What a great way for people to get along and get to know each other: go for a run together.
KH: There you go, and that is the other key message of the campaign: unity. The Olympics was great as it showed people of all different backgrounds – including some Muslims – who come together with other people from other religions, all doing the same sport.
It is amazing. The design on my campaign t-shirts shows women of all different cultures and ethnicities standing together united, and that only promotes peace and unity. There is so much hate out there, and health and fitness can really bring us together.
It is not just about helping us enjoy exercise, it is about helping us enjoy our day to day lives.
MT: So final question, I don’t know what you careers advice was like in school, but how can schools and colleges make girls more aware of maybe careers they may not have thought of?
KH: That was a long time ago for me now! We definitely had careers advice in college, but in school it was not as much, although you could always go and speak to the teachers – but it was only their personal opinions.
I definitely think now that the world has evolved, careers advisors also need to advise on entrepreneurship, and advise on how you can do things after university that are not related to what you have studied, but could be related to how you can build your own enterprises on social media or similar platforms – to earn a living, but a lot of people do it but we never get advice on it.
People like us don’t really know how to do it. People who know how to do it are already doing it and mastering it. Yesterday, I met someone who’s day job is Instagram. She gets sponsored by makeup companies and sport brands to take pictures – that is her job: just post stuff on Instagram.
If we can get people like that to come and speak to young people and say “look, you don’t really need to worry – focus on your education but if you feel you want to do something different then go ahead.
People get paid to travel to other places and take pictures: they are enjoying themselves and getting paid and they will be better at it because they love it.
MT: Would you also say that soft skills like resilience and determination are important to develop too? Throwing yourself into experiences, like university was for you, is a character-building experience as well as the qualification.
KH: Even if it is something scary, just do it. You never know what you can get out of an experience until you do it, especially things that might seem scary to you.
It is amazing how much you can do something that you initially thought you might be really bad or just never done it. The first step is just getting out of your comfort zone; I am a socially anxious person, I don’t really like talking in front of people – to go up and approach someone and talk them, but for me I had to change that to be able to do what I do now.
Feel free to visit Kaoutar's website and learn more about how you can support her diversity & unity campaign at www.evolvewithk.com
Also follow on social media @Evolvewithk
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