Leading the way

PSU student leader Marwa Al-Khamees found her place on campus through helping others find theirs.

The news came without fanfare: The Al-Khamees had been accepted as refugees. The Iraqi family had two weeks to get to America.

Another continent, another culture; Marwa Al-Khamees, then 14, tried to make sense of it. Her sister, born with cerebral palsy, would have access to better medical care. Her father, a pharmacist, would leave his career behind. Her mother, a biologist, would be reunited with her mother and brother. And Marwa?

Knowing little English, she would go from attending a middle school for gifted girls to repeating the 8th grade at a co-ed middle school in Beaverton.

“I was crying every single day,” says Marwa, now 21. “One of the kids, he pointed at my head and said, ‘You’re a towel head.’ The same day, by coincidence, I had just learned the word for towel, and I was like, ‘Oh. That’s not a compliment.’”

From that low point Marwa rose quickly, earning a 4.0 by the end of her freshman year in high school. She knew she was college-bound – her parents and teachers insisted on it. Marwa forced herself to get involved in high school clubs and made friends.

“They pushed me to learn everything about the U.S., like how to go about filling out your college applications or federal financial aid forms,” Marwa says. “My parents had no idea how to help me with it, so my friends supported me.”

When the big college decision came, Marwa knew right away that Portland State was the place for her. Not only was it close to both her family and downtown Portland – but it offered financial resources that made her choice an easy one.

"PSU encouraged me to be myself."

“I ended up getting the diversity scholarship for PSU. To this day I have no idea how I would have paid for college without it.”

At Portland State, Marwa immersed herself into a community that was full of new people and new perspectives. Different age groups, different gender identities, racial diversity and religious diversity – it was a revelation.

“I remember one of my classmates staring at me for a good two hours. After class, she came up to me and apologized. She said she grew up in a small town and I was the first Muslim woman she had ever seen – and that I was beautiful.’” Marwa says.

Interactions like that spurred her to seek out leadership roles, and Marwa got involved with the Muslim Student Association, the Women’s Resource Center, and the Arab Persian Student Association. She became a peer mentor, a student ambassador, and a coordinator for the new student orientation team. The more she got involved, the more she realized her potential.

Now majoring in management leadership and HR management, Marwa has her eyes on higher education leadership and plans to apply to the Graduate School of Education. Marwa says working with incoming students has allowed her to give back to a community that welcomed her. She sees herself in the new students, in their hope and hunger, and often reassures them that they will find a place that fits.

"PSU encouraged me to be myself."