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Take Egypt Like a Man

My Inner Nerd Makes Me Master

This week, Nadia El-Awady talks diving, med school, and inner nerds.

I think it’s time I come to terms with the fact that I have an inner nerd. Yesterday was the day I chose to take the theoretical exam part of my divemaster course. I’ve been diving for about three years and have gradually taken one course after the other, increasing my certification level, while at the same time diving frequently to improve my skills. I’ve often thought it would be very cool to be able to work in the diving industry even if it’s just a side thing. So why not take the steps that give me that option? The divemaster certification is the first rung in the ladder of professional divers. Divemasters can take other divers out on guided diving tours and can assist instructors in training, in addition to a few other tasks.

So at the end of last August I suddenly decided it was time to start the divemaster course. I was doing this for my own enjoyment. My career and/or my life don’t depend on me getting this certification. Well, try convincing my inner nerd of that.

Much of the course involves practical exercises and training. I took these very seriously. Part of the practical training was done with two other divemaster candidates. I did everything in my power to be better than them. While doing an exercise that involves determining the direction in which the underwater currents are flowing, I pretty much threw a one person party on the zodiac when I got it right and my other two colleagues got it wrong. It was pathetic. The divers back on the boat some 50 meters away could see me throwing my arms up in the air and waving them around every which way.

The theory part of the course involves a lot of studying. Many divemaster students skim through the books or go directly to a question-and-answer booklet and gain their knowledge through looking up answers in the course materials. It’s actually quite a good way to study. I do this. But is it enough for Nerd Nadia? Noooo. Nerd Nadia needs to read every single word of the main course book and almost everything in the course ENCYCLOPEDIA. Yes. I actually read most of the encyclopedia. I am Nadia and I am a nerd.

This is how seriously I take the pre-dive briefings.

Even though this is how I studied, I feel that I’m not up to par with my younger nerd self.  Younger Nerd Nadia would have sat down and memorized, word for word, every single page in both books. Younger Nerd Nadia would have bought extra-curricular material to have a broader understanding of the subjects at hand.

Younger Nerd Nadia exhibited typical Egyptian medical student behavior when she was in university. Studying involved walking back and forth, back and forth, back and forth in my bedroom with my book in my hand and reading out loud every single word. This nervous vocal reading style would help me retain much of the information I went through during that first reading. This would then be followed by a second reading in which I broke down the structure of each chapter. I would look for the logic in the content falling under each structural component. Once understood, I would then commit it all to memory. Once memorized, I would recite out loud the whole chapter from beginning to end. And then, tired from all the effort that goes into talking to one’s self, I would recite everything one last time in writing. All this would be done in one session. It is repeated for every chapter. And it is repeated for the same chapters throughout the semester until I know them like I know the back of my hand.

This from the woman who, many years later, cannot remember the birth dates of her own children.

Obviously, I do not have it in me to study this way anymore. I still exhibit typical Egyptian medical student behavior, though.

Egyptian medical students believe it is bad luck to shower or shave before an exam. If you are to be successful in answering your test, you need to suffer the few days beforehand (and everyone else needs to suffer along with you). Egyptian medical students will show other signs of self-induced suffering. They will live on coffee and tea for several days while putting very little food in their mouths. Their sleeping patterns are reversed. They isolate themselves from their families and friends. No matter how well their studying is going, they will, fearing the evil eye, tell everyone how horrible they are doing and how they will probably fail this upcoming test. Sometimes they actually believe themselves. My girlfriends in medical school would frequently call each other up on the morning of the exam to see how everyone was doing. My answer would always be, “I haven’t managed to get through most of the curriculum! I can’t remember a single thing! I’m doomed!” I really did believe myself.

I wasn’t as morbid while studying for my divemaster exam as I was some 25 years ago while studying for my medical school exams. But I certainly did not shower or shave on the morning of my exam. I was not about to jinx this! And I complained to everyone who knew I was taking the exam about how hard this course was and how badly my studying was going. Some things stick with you, you know?

I woke up yesterday morning with my typical Egyptian medical student pre-exam diarrhea. I couldn’t eat. I had the jitters. My dreams the previous night were dominated by numbers such as how much faster sound travels through water than air, the heat absorption capacity of water, and how to calculate air consumption at various depths.

Getting ready to have fun with the fishes!

I was the only one sitting for the exam yesterday. I was in a room alone with Abeer, the nice young woman who manages the Cairo-based dive center I was doing my PADI divemaster course through. So I freely exhibited more of my typical Egyptian medical student behavior. I read every single question out loud. OUT LOUD. I thought through the answers out loud. This would end with, “The answer to question 34 is….B!” Throughout this process my left leg was in a mad frenzy bouncing up and down continuously. I would sometimes get up from my chair and read the questions while standing and then sit back down on my chair and answer while sitting.

At the end of the exam Abeer asked me what my profession was. I told her I was a journalist. She wrinkled her eyebrows as if that didn’t make sense. She asked me, “So, why all the nervous energy?” I told her I went to med school. That’s all she needed to know. My odd exam behavior suddenly made sense to her.

We went through the multiple choice exam to find out how many answers I got right. I got 7 out of 120 answers wrong. I was quite disappointed. But then we calculated the percentage. I got 94 percent on my divemaster exam! Wooohooo! I was exuberant! 43-year-old Nerd Nadia still had the stuff! Abeer told me that not many people do that well on this exam. I told her that all that nervous energy we former med school students have has an advantage. Of course, being the nerd that I am, I had to go through my wrong answers and find out why I messed up. A couple of them were silly mistakes, another two were things I truly did not know, and the other three were answers I had suspected were right but instead chose something else not being sure.

I did my masters degree in journalism when I was in my mid-30s. Everyone else in my classes were young 20-year-olds. One of my classmates was a young work colleague. One day at work he gathered other colleagues around and said, “You all want to know what Dr Nadia is like in class? She’s the kind of person that sits in the front row and shoots her arm up high in the air, wanting to be the one to answer all the professor’s questions.”

Well, this nerdy behavior has been getting me As since I was a little girl. And now, because of this behavior, I have official certification that says I am your master. So bow down to Master Nerd Nadia. Or at least congratulate me for passing my divemaster course with flying colors.