By Audriannah Horne
In September 2018, Djelli Berisha was motivated to optimize as many of the opportunities offered at the University of Washington Bothell as he could. The son of Albanian immigrants, the first-generation college student took to heart his father’s advice to “make the most” of his four years of higher education.
And that is exactly what he did. Academically, he began doing research during his first quarter and continued as an undergraduate research fellow until his graduation in spring 2022 — with a degree in Biology and two minors: Chemistry and Diversity Studies.
Complementing his studies, he served as the Associated Students of the University of Washington Bothell’s senator of internal affairs, director of student advocacy and president before becoming the first-ever UW student regent from UW Bothell.
For his deep engagement, Berisha was named one of the 2022 Husky 100 honorees.
Each year, the UW recognizes 100 undergraduate and graduate students from Bothell, Seattle and Tacoma campuses who make the most of their time at the University. The recipients actively connect what happens inside and outside of the classroom, applying what they learn to make a difference on campus and in their communities. Berisha is one of 11 students from UW Bothell to be recognized for 2022.
Starting with the heart
During his first-year Introductory Biology course, Berisha became fascinated with how cells become specialized for certain functions in the human body. An aspiring physician, he wanted to learn more and thus pursued an opportunity at the prestigious Institute for Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine suggested by Dr. Bryan White, teaching professor in the School of STEM.
He was awarded a 2019 summer fellowship with the Seattle campus institute, the first UW Bothell student to receive the honor and one of only five across the three UW campuses. Fellows receive a stipend, waived tuition and the opportunity to participate in speaking engagements and public outreach.
Berisha did experiments with heart cells from mice, first dissecting the mice and then cutting open their hearts. The lab project aimed to expand understanding of a specific pathway in the DNA sequence that may help prevent heart failure.
“In addition to the hands-on work, I learned how to communicate and present scientific knowledge and experimental design and analysis,” said Berisha. “I’ve also learned just how interconnected science is to a better way of life.”
Engaging with the mind
Outside of his classes and lab work, Berisha worked to enhance the college experience for his fellow students.
“I ran for office at the start of my sophomore year because I wanted to be more involved on campus,” he said.
Alongside other ASUWB officers and advisers in the Office of Undergraduate Success, he helped develop academic “degree maps” that are designed to assist students in staying on track for their major and graduating on time. The initiative has since grown into Meta-Majors Pathways that are intended to help undergraduate students also discover academic, co-curricular and research opportunities at UW Bothell based on their intended major or field of interest.
In addition to helping ease transfer credit equivalencies and helping students be admitted to their major so they could graduate on time, Berisha noted that the Meta Major pathways “contributed to students finding a sense of belonging at UW Bothell.”
Leading with integrity
Berisha followed the project through implementation in academic year 2019-20 as ASUWB’s director of student advocacy. He also planned student events that promoted diversity and inclusion, and created and co-chaired ASUWB’s first Student Advisory Council. “I wanted to amplify student voices and advocate for student needs in their undergraduate journey,” he said.
During monthly meetings with council members, he facilitated conversations regarding academic success, campus safety and student engagement, which allowed for diverse input into ASUWB operations.
In September 2020, Berisha began to oversee those operations as president of the ASUWB. “My leadership capacity was put to the ultimate test, governing during the confluence of a global pandemic, a crucial presidential election and social injustices all across the country,” he said. “These instances fused together and impacted us in various ways: our mental and physical health, financial stability and our ability to engage in the classroom and persist in our college experience.
“I worked to lead and support a team of 12 officers to advocate for resources that considered students’ learning success.”
Paving the way
Berisha and his team coordinated forums that informed students on ways to alleviate stress and anxiety, hosted food drives for students battling food insecurity and developed ways to engage students in virtual programming. “At times throughout the year, it became tough to prioritize the welfare of our campus community,” he admitted. “But my journey through ASUWB proved to be meaningful in my growth as a leader.”
In his senior year, Berisha took his leadership skills a step beyond that of any UW Bothell students before him: He was named the first student representative of the campus appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee to the UW Board of Regents. The regents govern and steward the tri-campus University for the benefit of present and future residents of the state of Washington. The student regent brings the perspective of students past, present and future to difficult decisions that involve balancing the interests of current and future students, and of students and the faculty or staff.
As a regent, Berisha focused on building meaningful, collaborative relationships and ensuring student perspectives were represented at a crucial time in U.S. history. The honor of serving as a regent not only allowed him to expand his understanding of University operations, he said it also helped him develop a more defined vision for his future.
“Given policy challenges from the economic and political impacts of COVID-19, I have learned that I want to explore the intersection of policy and health care at an administrative level,” he said.
Giving voice to the voiceless
Dr. Wolf Yeigh, professor of Engineering and, at the time, UW Bothell chancellor, endorsed Berisha for the Husky 100 award.
“During my more than 20 years of working with student leaders, I believe there isn’t anyone who advocated more for student voice and action than Djelli,” he said. “He has made student voices heard impactfully and respectfully.”
Noted Berisha: “Being a part of this vibrant campus community and through my relationships with peers, faculty, staff and administrators, I have been able to grow into a powerful catalyst for positive change and empower communities on campus to do the same,” he said. “UW Bothell has transformed me into a scholar and perceptive leader who considers how I lead with purpose.”
He also said he plans to keep focusing on ways he can make meaningful, sustainable change all while inspiring the next generation of leaders.
“The University of Washington has prepared me to use my platform to continue to advocate for the voiceless and generate great social impact, which I will apply to my future as an aspiring physician to break barriers to health care access and elevate quality of life for all.”