By Sean Park
In her sophomore year at the University of Washington Bothell, Rukeya Yassen decided she wanted to broaden her college experience by studying abroad. Out of all the locations that are offered through UW, her dream destination was Italy. The cost, however, was prohibitive.
For guidance, Yassen turned to her academic adviser, Amy Couto, who suggested she apply for the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, a prestigious national fellowship funded by the U.S. Department of State.
“Her eagerness to experience other cultures and her deep passion for education and human rights made her a strong applicant for the award,” said Couto.
A deserving scholar
Named after the late New York Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, the scholarship aims to expand access to international study and internship opportunities to students of limited means. Since it began in 2001, the scholarship has received more than 100,000 applications and approximately only one in four receive the honor.
A senior majoring in education, Yassen was one of those selected to receive a $2,000 scholarship. Starting in mid-August, she will study in Italy as part of a UW exploration seminar, Education Rome: Gender and Multiculturalism.
“Having the courage and follow through to apply for a nationally competitive scholarship like the Gilman is a huge success, and I am proud of Rukeya for taking the chance on herself to pursue this,” said Couto. “I am thrilled that she will have the opportunity to study in Rome and represent UW Bothell as a well deserving Gilman scholar.”
The class will be centered around different aspects of Italy’s education system. Students will discuss their observations and compare them to what they have studied about the United States.
For Yassen, the appeal to studying in Italy goes beyond what she will learn in the classroom. The curriculum includes visiting refugee camps to have a closer look at the current immigration crisis in Europe.
“I am really looking forward to this aspect of the program,” Yassen said. “I come from a family of refugees, and I want to experience first-hand what these camps are like.”
Her parents were both refugees in Sudan before coming to Seattle. Her mother is originally from Eritrea, and her father from Ethiopia. “I am grateful for the opportunity to explore parts of my family history I may not have learned otherwise,” she said.
Yassen maintains close ties to her roots and serves on the youth board as an activities coordinator for the Ethiopian Muslim Association of Seattle (EMAS).
She also invests in the education of young people in the community by teaching Islamic studies. Yassen is committed to giving back in these ways, and this work is especially meaningful to her because her family benefited from EMAS services when she was growing up.
In fact, one of her main goals as an activities coordinator is to motivate her peers who spent a significant amount of time growing up in EMAS to return and serve as volunteers for the next generation.
“I’ve been attending EMAS classes since I was 5 — and my experience giving back to the organization has led me to believe that my personal journey of growing up in Seattle helps me to connect with the younger students in aspects that only we can understand,” she said. “Because of this realization, my mission is to hold events that encourage my peers to come back and share the lessons they have learned with the next generation.”
Yassen works to benefit her community at UW Bothell as well. She works as a Social Justice Organizer (SJO), a small cadre of students that provides programs to foster awareness and understanding of race, gender, ability and other social justice issues. One of the most popular programs they host is Dine-n-Dialogue, a series of events held multiple times each month that give students a platform to discuss pressing topics together.
For Yassen, the most memorable dialogue was around the subject of voting rights. “That was one of our biggest turnouts of the year. A lot of students just wanted to know what rights students have as voters and what voting means in the United States, especially since it was around election time,” she said.
“Many students left that session thanking us for providing such valuable information.”
Toward a brighter future
With a humanitarian heart and a drive to make her goals a reality, Yassen’s plan after college is to work as a counselor in elementary and middle schools. She’d like to start her counseling career in the United States but eventually work in countries in the Middle East or East Africa.
She has a passion to help children in underserved populations, especially those who are being bullied.
“One thing that’s huge in elementary and middle school today is bullying, and a lot of times students feel alone and helpless. I want to make sure they know that there is a resource provided by the school specifically for them,” she said. “It's important for students to know that there is somebody in the school who’s there for them.”