Hearing-impaired student overcomes challenges to excel in IB exam with impressive score
Hearing-impaired eighteen-year-old student, Karen Youakim, did not let her challenging situation take the shine out of her and came out with flying colours in the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma exam this year, scoring a 42 with three core points.
Karen had no difficulty hearing from birth until she was eight, when her parents started noticing that she couldn't hear them clearly or respond promptly. In six months, she stopped hearing in both ears completely due to a genetic condition called Mondini Syndrome.
In an interview with Khaleej Times, Karen recalls her learning journey as nothing short of “hectic”. “I’ve been enrolled in more than five schools over the last 13 years, in different countries, with different systems. Getting used to a new system every two to three years was difficult, but I’ve always managed to excel by the time I left school. In Year 3, I only attended about a third of the academic year; the rest of the time, I was in the hospital trying to figure out what went wrong with my hearing.
Moving to Canada and getting my cochlear implant, I remember school being insanely difficult,” said the 2023 graduate of GEMS Wellington Academy – Silicon Oasis (WSO) school.
In Year 5, she wanted to move to the French system in Canada and do her learning in French, but it was met opposition. However, Karen remained resilient. She said: “My hearing support teacher frowned on the idea, saying it wouldn’t be good for me and I wouldn’t be able to catch up. I moved to the French system anyway and now I’m almost fluent in French. In fact, throughout the three years I spent in the French system I topped my class, and I graduated from elementary school with distinction. My score of 7 in IB French speaks for itself,” said the Egyptian-Canadian expat.Reading lips was my way of hearing.
"I had the same sense of frustration as everyone else. I didn’t enjoy distance learning, although it was manageable. At least I could wear headphones and understand my teachers. Coming back to school was the problem. With everyone wearing masks, I felt like I was eight years old again, unable to hear or understand anyone. Reading lips was my way of hearing, and masks took that away; it frustrated and isolated me.
"Karen felt exhausted because of the extra effort needed to hear with masks on. That year marked proved to be an agonising time for her, as it felt like reliving the most distressing period of her life.“I constantly had migraines and fell asleep in all my classes. At one point, I gathered a group of students to appeal to the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) so that my teachers could wear clear shields instead of masks. It took a long time to get approval – and even then, some people weren’t convinced. That period was difficult. It felt like reliving the worst year of my life all over again.”
But by the end of Year 11, her perseverance paid off. She won the Student of the Year and got a grade 9 in all 10 of her GCSE subjects.
In Year 12, she was the Head Inclusion Ambassador and launched her own society for the deaf and hard of hearing. She was even in charge of TEDx after doing a TED talk the year before.“Any opportunity that was offered, I took it! I always had a clear objective in my mind, ‘succeed’.
In Year 13, I won the GEMS Platinum Jubilee Scholarship in early October, a scholarship given to 70 students across the UAE who ‘promoted the many values that Her Majesty has embodied for so long, such as devotion to duty, loyalty, respect, and charitable deeds’. I wanted to make the most of that incredible opportunity – it became my mission to make my school proud. I hunkered down and focused solely on my studies,” she adds.
Karen today attributes her success to her parents and school, whose indomitable support alleviated her daily challenges. She recalls that her parents taught her that failure is acceptable and her self-worth is not tied to academic achievements alone.“My parents always encouraged me to work hard and were in the front row cheering me on for every award, every speech, and every initiative I ever did. They showed me that it’s okay to not be perfect. My teachers at WSO have also been my biggest supporters. They never pushed me down and recognised my struggles, helping me through them instead of adding pressure. I especially have to thank Ms Britny Goulet. I can’t count the number of times I sat in her office to rant, cry, ask for advice, or talk to her as a friend. Her ‘tough love’ during those times when I was close to giving up kept me going.”
No social media and phone before exams
But external support alone was not enough. Karen's discipline and self-control have been key elements in taking her one step closer to her goal. Well before her examinations, she consciously chose to eliminate all social media platforms from her life to avoid distractions.
"I haven't had any social media since March 2022 – a decision I made so I could focus. I would sandwich subjects I found difficult between subjects I found easier. I would use a timer system and give myself regular breaks – usually an hour of work followed by a 15-minute break. I had my parents lock my phone away so I wouldn't get distracted. I also feel one shouldn't underestimate class time; it's more important than last-minute revision.
"Sharing her dream of wanting to pursue the legal profession, as she feels its applicable to almost all other career pathways, Karen adds: "I especially like UCL because of the law clinic affiliated with the university. I will have the chance to help with different initiatives and tackle social justice issues, all while studying.
My dream is to open a series of orphanages in Egypt. Ever since volunteering at an orphanage for children with special needs, it's been my dream to give back."