Imagine being driven out of your country and leaving your family and everything you’ve known behind. That’s exactly how recent Quinsigamond Community College dual major (Engineering and Biomedical Engineering) graduate Fatin Alkhaledi found herself four years ago as a refugee from Iraq, trying to learn English and make a new life for herself and her family in Worcester.
Ms. Alkhaledi, her husband and three children came to the United States in 2013 after running from Iraq to Syria in order to escape the kidnappings and killings of educated people in her homeland. The United Nations assisted the family in finding asylum in the United States, giving them a travel loan to get to the U.S. Since the family knew no one in the States, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) made the decision to place the family in Worcester.
“All my family, my parents and four brothers and four sisters are back in Iraq,” Ms. Alkhaledi said.
Told the requirements to stay in the U.S. were to attend school and search for a job, Ms. Alkhaledi realized she first needed to secure a firm grasp of the English language and began taking English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at QCC.
Ms. Alkhaledi worked hard to master the English language with the assistance of her instructors. QCC Math Professor Hojatollah Majidi recognized her strong aptitude for math and suggested she meet with Professor Dadbeh Bigonahy, Coordinator of Engineering, Biomedical Engineering & Sciences.
“I met with him and he asked me a lot of questions and encouraged me to attend QCC in the Biomedical Engineering program,” she said.
However, Ms. Alkhaledi was concerned about taking her placement tests and completing the ESL sequence. Kathleen Lewando, QCC Professor of ESL, encouraged her to take the placement test after finishing the ESL class.
Ms. Alkhaledi agreed with that advice; taking the placement tests after the ELS class concluded and scoring high in all areas. She decided to major in biomedical engineering after Professor Bigonahy showed her a biomedical engineering brochure that sparked her interest.
“I already had an Engineering degree in Iraq and had worked there for seven years designing and maintaining electronics and communication circuits, but was not really ever comfortable as a woman working in that field,” she added.
Ms. Alkhaledi began her studies at QCC in Spring 2014 and quickly became an active member of the community. Along with her course load and family, Ms. Alkhaledi held down a work study job at the Athletic Center; volunteered as a translator in the admissions office; became an active member of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society; a member of the new Women in STEM student organization; acted as an ambassador for other refugees, and was even a player on QCC’s first women’s soccer team.
“I wanted to play soccer but was worried about my dress. My coach Josh Cole supported me and allowed me to dress the way I felt comfortable,” she said.
Ms. Alkhaledi said the support and encouragement she received from many QCC faculty and staff has made a huge impact on her.
“I want to first thank my advisor, Professor Bigonahy, who is showing me the way towards success; Assistant Professor Kristen Daigneault (QCC English Department), who taught me how to write a good essay, and everyone at PTK (Phi Theta Kappa honor society), especially Bonnie Coleman who supported me,” said Ms. Alkhaledi. “Dean Liz Woods (formerly Dean of Students now Dean of Compliance) helped me many times, as well as Susan Meola (S.H.E. Mentoring Program), my mentor Terri Rodriquez in the Disabilities Services, and all the staff in the athletic center.”
She was also quick to add that the first person who has supported her and continues to support her is her husband.
Since the very beginning of her career at QCC, Ms. Alkhaledi has remained focused on her educational objectives.
Last May, Ms. Alkhaledi graduated from QCC, earning top honors. As a Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society student she received a gold stole in commemoration of her academic and community service commitments. In addition, she was one of 15 who received the Engineering Student Distinction Award, which is presented to high achieving students in their respective engineering academic major. She also received a Woman of Distinction Award (2016), an award that is presented annually to women students who distinguished themselves by overcoming great odds and/or who made a difference in their community. Students are nominated by faculty members.
Ms. Alkhaledi has been accepted into Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) this fall as a junior biomedical engineering student. Due to her high GPA at QCC, she received a $32,000 scholarship from WPI.
As a recipient of a Research Experiences for Undergraduates grant (“REU”) at WPI this summer, she has already made her presence felt as an integral part of a small 10-person team that has been growing heart tissue on a spinach leaf. This quite possibly could change medical history in the foreseeable future by one day using working heart muscle tissue grown on spinach leaves to help repair damaged organs.
Glenn Gaudette, PhD, Professor of Biomedical Engineering who leads the research team at WPI, assigned her one of the more difficult projects; improving the supporting system for cell growth perfusion. She is playing a vital role in the internationally acclaimed project. Her work has been met with rave reviews. This October she and Narda Bondah, a fellow QCC student who was also a WPI REU grant recipient this summer, will be presenting their work at the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) Conference in Phoenix, AZ. Both have student memberships in BMES through QCC.
“I have a goal and want to be as good as I can be. I am an engineer and I am focused on the skills I need to improve,” Ms. Alkhaledi said, adding, “We can do anything here at QCC if we have a goal.”