Dr. Joyce Azzam: On Top of the World

After living in a bunker during the Lebanese civil war as well as battling a chronic lung condition and a potentially debilitating hypermobility syndrome, Dr. Joyce Azzam climbed her way to the top and became the first Lebanese woman to complete The Seven Summits Challenge. She withstood freezing temperatures and near-deadly oxygen levels and successfully climbed the tallest mountain on every continent, becoming one of the first three women in the Arab World and one of 75 women worldwide to do so.

She has scaled over 30 of the most challenging mountains around the world, including Mt. Everest, Kilimanjaro, Denali in Alaska, and Vinson in Antarctica. She accomplished this while simultaneously completing a Ph.D. in Landscape & Environment Management and a Master’s degree in Conservation of Historic Cities and Buildings from the La Sapienza University of Rome, a Master’s Degree in Governance Models and Management of Local Public System from the University of Perugia in Italy, and a Master’s Degree in Architecture from the Lebanese University. Dr. Azzam believes her degree in architecture came in extremely handy when it was time to visualize and plan her expeditions.

Dr. Azzam received little to no help and had to be her communications and marketing manager. This came at a time when sponsors were not as willing to sponsor a Lebanese athlete due to ongoing political turmoil in the country from 2012 to 2019, but she persevered and was able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars singlehandedly. She also received little to no support or encouragement from family and friends (besides her brother, George, who helped with training) when she decided to pursue her love for mountaineering, instead opting to call her a ‘gambler’ with her life or a ‘beggar’ for sponsorships. However, she wore the sponsorship badges on her gear with the sort of pride that only comes with knowing you did it all yourself.

Of course, this was no easy feat. Shouldering the weight of self-doubt, criticism, sponsorship, and funding rejections, as well as gender-based discrimination stemming from both men and women in the Lebanese and international mountaineering community, Dr. Azzam almost considered giving up. For months, while completing her Ph.D., she considered selling her equipment, getting a traditional teaching job at a university, settling down with a husband, and raising children. However, her desire to succeed, prove everyone wrong, create an impact, and achieve her dream drove her to continue her journey day by day, climbing both literal and metaphorical mountains to make it happen.

This pushback from her community and loved ones all culminated in a moment after she had just completed her last summit, Mt. Everest, where she received a call from her parents on a satellite phone. She had gotten into an argument with them before leaving for her expedition and was still at 6400 meters when the call went through. There, she had an emotional and beautiful conversation where they finally understood her vision and decisions; it was a turning point as she finally had their support and belief in her career, granted she had to climb seven mountains to do it. Her family now turns to her niece and empowers her to be a champion ‘just like [her] auntie.’

Dr. Azzam could not have predicted the impact her career choice would have on Lebanese youths until a student contacted her to tell her that his school was teaching them about heroes and that he wanted to write his presentation about her. Dr. Azzam was so touched by this gesture that she ended up surprising the boy and his classmates at school and giving a talk. Working with international organizations, academia, think tanks, and local communities across several continents, she has channeled her love for inspiring youth and women to overcome life and societal challenges and is a motivational speaker on the international circuit promoting the conservation of precious cultural and environmental endowments.

To young women and girls, she says, “Do not let anyone choose your careers for you. Do not choose a career based on what would be comfortable, what would make you a good mother, or what society wants you to do. Choose a career that makes you happy, one that feels like a light inside of you is glowing, one that makes you energetic and gives you the motivation to do it every day.” She believes that, while some say this is unrealistic advice, she was able to become a full-time mountaineer on her own, just by following the pure drive, love, and vision that she had for climbing. “You can create whatever you want. Do not wait for anyone to start believing in your vision.”

Dr. Azzam also calls on the government and private sector to empower women and create more opportunities for women in sports. She calls on the media to provide the same exposure for women in sports that men receive, especially at the national level, as very few women in sports have been given screen time. It is high time we see women athletes on television, on talk shows, and on the news; their achievements are no less than men’s, but their representation is next-to-none. She believes that empowering women is a win-win situation: women are more motivated to accomplish their dreams, and men are more likely to respect women in athletics.

Dr. Joyce Azzam is currently in the planning and development stage of completing expeditions to the North and South poles, in doing so she would become the fourth woman worldwide to complete the Explorer’s Grand Slam.

This story was written by Ghada El Kawas

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