Lea Zaytoun, aspiring NASA engineer, encourages women to pursue tech careers

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Lea Zaytoun, with her brother Ali Zaytoun, with a holiday tree in the background.

Coming from a family of doctors, engineers, and math teachers made it easy for HFC alumna Lea Zaytoun to pursue a career in engineering.

“My brother Ali, who’s also an HFC alumnus, is an engineer at Ford Motor Company. We’re both big fans of science and math. Growing up, we were constantly watching National Geographic and seeing all these cool things. MythBusters was also a huge inspiration. And the 2014 action-adventure movie Interstellar confirmed that engineering was the field for me. I had that moment of awe,” explained Zaytoun, of Dearborn Heights.

Her dream job is to one day work for NASA.

“I’m obsessed with space! NASA is the ultimate dream. The child in me really wants to fulfill the dream of working for them one day,” she said. “I feel like I was born too late to explore the Earth and discover new things, but I was born at right time to discover what’s out there in space. I want to be able to have a lasting effect on Earth. At least a small part. I want to design spaceships and rovers and the way I can accomplish that is through engineering. When I look back on my life later on, I want to say that I was proud to be part of that.”

Beneficial in many ways to attend HFC

The youngest of two, Zaytoun was born in Lebanon. When she was 5, her family moved to Gambia in West Africa. She moved to the United States in 2021 on a student visa to pursue her education.

“My mom wasn’t too keen on us moving away, but we had to move to get the college education we wanted,” explained Zaytoun. “The place she was comfortable with was Dearborn because it has the largest Arabic population outside the Middle East. We also had friends and family here.”

Zaytoun graduated from Marina International School in the Banjul area of Gambia. She followed in her brother’s footsteps and came to HFC.

“Ali researched colleges and universities in Michigan,” she said. “We picked HFC because of all community colleges in the region, it had the highest rate of classes that would transfer to universities. That definitely made things much easier for us, especially for international tuition. We could save money and transfer.”

Zaytoun earned her associate degree in pre-engineering from HFC. Transferring to the University of Michigan-Dearborn, Zaytoun will complete her bachelor's degree in electrical engineering in 2025. She speaks fluent English, Arabic, and French. She is also conversational in Wolof, the local language in Gambia.

“The professors at HFC teach their subjects well,” said Zaytoun. “The class size wasn’t overwhelming. You felt that you had more connections with the professors; you could reach out for help, and they would be there to help you. Coming from a high school overseas and going into a class with 300 students at a large university would have been overwhelming. It was easier to make the transition to these big classes at a smaller college like HFC.”

First female president of HFC’s Engineering Club

During her time at HFC, Zaytoun was the first female president of the Engineering Club. Under her leadership, she revitalized the organization by arranging the Engineering Club and Battle Bot Competition.

“Engineering is a male-dominated field. To earn the respect of members who were expecting an alpha male in the lead, I had to work hard. I built amazing friendships from that club. I learned you have to speak with confidence and speak in a way that shows you know what you’re doing, coaching and pushing you peers down the right path. And when you want to help them do things better, you bring their attention to it so they do not lose confidence in themselves or feel threatened. When they realize that it was your help that got them to their final goals, then you know you’re doing something right,” explained Zaytoun.

The Engineering Club is her pride and joy. When Zaytoun first assumed the presidency, the meetings were small. Arranging the competition gave people a reason to participate.

“At first, everyone was doing the same thing: building simple robots with one function,” she explained. “What I decided to do after consulting with fellow officers and faculty advisor Dr. Hassan Mohseni Nameghi was the Battle Bots. It was a huge hit!”

Henry Ford Early College student Hassan Berry has succeeded Zaytoun as president for the 2023-24 academic year.

“There was more I wanted to accomplish with this club. I still attend meetings and check in on them once in a while,” said Zaytoun. “When my time at HFC was coming to an end, I had to pass on the presidency to someone else. I saw something in Hassan. The Engineering Club’s in good hands.”

A passion for student organizations

At UM-Dearborn, Zaytoun served as the president the Intelligent Systems Club for a semester then moved on to being president of the Engineering Society of Detroit. She has dedicated herself to both organizations the way she did with the Engineering Club at HFC.

“When I found out that the ESD was dormant, I knew I had to take it on. Being in organizations and clubs is something I’ve been involved in my whole life. I was president of a charity club in high school called the Interact Club. It gave me the foundation needed to lead the clubs I am involved in today,” she said.

Zaytoun is the only alumna involved with the HFC Pre-Engineering Advisory Board. She was also the only student involved with the advisory board during her time at HFC.

“I enjoyed working with Dr. Nameghi. I was his student assistant and helped with many things, including attending faculty meetings,” she said. “I was the only student and now the only alumna involved with the Board. That was amazing to me, having some input about the classes I took and was about to take. What I suggested that should be changed was taken into consideration. I was speaking not only for myself but on the behalf of every pre-engineering student.”

Nameghi takes great pride in his former student’s accomplishments.

“Lea has been a great asset to our Pre-Engineering Program, considering her passion for STEM education and her exceptional leadership skills,” said Nameghi. “Her initiatives, ranging from revitalizing our Engineering Club in the post-pandemic era to facilitating connections with UM-Dearborn clubs have not only enriched our campus community but also showcased her ability to bring ideas to life and inspire other students. I am highly proud of her achievements and confident in her bright future.”

“Empowering to be a woman in this field”

Another influence was Dr. Ashfiqua Connie, who taught Zaytoun in her ENGR-240 class.

“Dr. Connie and Dr. Nameghi were both huge inspirations,” recalled Zaytoun. “Dr. Connie made me feel better about going into electrical engineering because she’s an electrical engineer herself. She inspired me to go down that path.”

Added Connie: "Lea was great academically and showed strong leadership skills. I wish her all the best."

Zaytoun has some words of advice for other women thinking about pursuing a career in engineering.

“Don’t be afraid,” she said. “That only gives you more of a reason to go into engineering. It’s very empowering to be in this field as a woman because you’re breaking new ground. Don’t let anyone or anything stop you from pursuing it. There will be some bumps in the road, but you can overcome them with your head held high.”

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