Inspired by challenges

By Elisabeth Schnebele 

Noor Abdulhameed, Djelli Berisha and Ash Saucedo are proof that the hardest moments in life often lead to the most rewarding. They have each been chosen to receive the Chancellor’s Medal, an award presented to students whose commitment to learning and overcoming obstacles is a source of inspiration to other students and faculty. 

The 2022 medalists will be recognized during UW Bothell’s 31st Commencement Ceremony on Wednesday, June 15. 

“Noor, Djelli and Ash represent each and every graduate who has overcome a challenge on the way to getting a degree,” said Dr. Kristin G. Esterberg, chancellor of UW Bothell. “They inspire us all with their fortitude, dedication to their studies and extraordinary contributions to our campus community."

NOOR ABDULHAMEED: 

headshot of noor

Abdulhameed was born in Iraq and spent part of her childhood in the Middle East, where as a female her right to an education was limited. Now a young adult, she holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology from the University of Washington Bothell’s School of STEM

“Obtaining my degree, let alone this award, is something not many immigrants like myself get to accomplish,” she said. “My family is so proud. After the chancellor called me to tell me I had been chosen for the award, we all started crying. It means so much to me, my parents and my siblings.” 

Looking at Abdulhameed now as a Chancellor’s Medalist, it may be hard to believe that much of her upbringing was clouded by trauma. Her family fled to the United States when she was 5 years old after receiving an envelope that contained a bullet and death threat. Within two weeks, they had left Iraq, the only home they had ever known. 

Fueling her passion 

“Coming to a different country was challenging as not only was it a new environment but it was also a new language and culture,” Abdulhameed said. “I struggled to adapt. My darker skin stood out, and my heritage clashed with Western society’s expectations. I felt like I didn’t fit in.” 

The pain she experienced assimilating would later fuel her passion for helping other immigrants. In 2019, she became a mentor at Refugee Youth Summer Academy, a six-week program that empowers and prepares refugee, asylee and immigrant students from ages five to 20 for the upcoming school year. 

“Growing up, this is something I would have really benefited from,” she said, “and I wanted to participate in a cause that I knew firsthand had the potential to make a significant impact.” 

Creating virtual space 

Being a mentor at the summer camp taught Abdulhameed that she could use her past struggles to create a supportive and nurturing community for young immigrants. So during the pandemic, she founded Spill the Chai, a virtual space where immigrant students can explore the realm of higher education. 

“It’s remarkable how Noor used her culture and online workshops to bring together immigrants and encourage them to speak up,” said Chiamaka Odoh, a friend of Abdulhameed who nominated her for the medal. “She realizes that advocating for higher education and breaking barriers for youth will allow them to reach their goals.” 

Abdulhameed, an aspiring physician, has brought her cultural outreach to the health care field as well. As a home health aide, she works with senior clients, and it was connecting with older patients that sparked her interest in geriatrics and ultimately led her to conduct research at UW Medicine on brain aging in Alzheimer’s patients. She recently published a research paper on her findings in the Journal of Applied Physiology and is now working on several more publications. 

Abdulhameed conducting research in the biology lab

Abdulhameed conducting research in the biology lab

“Throughout all her work and experiences, Noor found a passion not only for medicine but also for finding ways to navigate lingual and cultural barriers for marginalized patients,” said Odoh. “Through her numerous experiences, I can tell Noor has developed engagement skills, professional relationships and lifelong connections.” 

Embodying perseverance 

Abdulhameed recently accomplished one of her biggest goals yet: getting accepted into medical school at the University of Toledo College of Medicine. She will begin her studies there this July, following her graduation from UW Bothell. 

“I’ve seen Noor put in endless hard work, dedication and devotion to her education, high academic grades and community work,” said Odoh. “She took initiative and progressed her aspirations as an Arab, a Muslim, an immigrant, a woman, and, of course, a Husky. I’ve had the opportunity to see her grow and transform into the young woman she is today. This is not the same Noor as at the beginning of college. 

“She embodies powerful values of perseverance, endeavor and compassion. Noor’s actuality and encounters as a first-generation immigrant have shaped her today — and will contribute to her career as a Middle Eastern female physician.” 

As for Abdulhameed, she credits her family for helping her to become the person she is today. “I want to express thanks and gratitude for my entire family, especially my mom who gave me opportunities, pushed me and has been there for me every step of the way.” 

DJELLI BERISHA: 

headshot of djelli

Berisha has held many titles in his time at UW Bothell including president of the Associated Students of UW Bothell, student regent on the UW Board of Regents, Husky 100 honoree, Mary Gates scholar and, now, Chancellor’s Medalist. 

These positions are impressive for anyone to hold, but they are made more so given the significant hurdles Berisha has had to overcome in pursuit of them. 

Offering his support 

Over the last few years, Berisha and his family have dealt with a series of financial hardships. Before he started at UW Bothell, he and his family were displaced and without a home. His parents, who emigrated from Albania, opened a pizza shop which allowed them to move into a rental property. But then, when the pandemic hit, their restaurant was among many small businesses that were forced to close. This was confounded by significant medical costs after his grandfather was hospitalized with COVID-19 for months. 

“Djelli has worked extremely hard to earn numerous grants and scholarships so that he has his tuition covered, which means that his wages for his student leadership roles have been able to support his family,” said Sam Al-Khoury, former director of Student Engagement & Activities. “Djelli has succeeded at impressive heights not only despite of these significant barriers, but I think he’s been further motivated by them.” 

Al-Khoury said that Berisha used his ASUWB presidency to build remarkably effective relationships with the Associated Students of the University of Washington in Seattle, the Graduate & Professional Student Senate and the Associated Students of UW Tacoma. “Djelli was one of the ASUWB presidents in the thick of the pandemic, and somehow he was able to build better relationships with stakeholders over Zoom than most ASUWB presidents have done in person,” Al-Khoury said. 

Exceling in his studies 

Amy Feldman-Bawarshi, retired academic adviser at UW Bothell, also lauded Berisha for responding to challenges of the time. “Djelli stepped up to the plate during a time of crisis and upped his game as a university leader and ambassador of positive change,” she said. “He leads with conviction, integrity, purpose and courage — and, most importantly, embodies UW’s core mission and values.” 

In addition to being a leader, Berisha is also a scholar and researcher. As a first-year student, he secured a prestigious fellowship with the Institute for Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine at the UW in Seattle. In 2021, he also received a highly competitive Mary Gates Research Scholarship. And he has co-authored several articles in the Biophysical Journal and presented to the Biophysical Society. 

Berisha working in lab

Berisha conducting research on stem cells and regenerative medicine

“UW Bothell has inspired me to engage in high-impact practices — undergraduate research, student leadership and global learning — that have developed both my interpersonal and intrapersonal skills,” said Berisha. “My time at UW Bothell has made me a more perceptive leader and scholar because of this engagement, which has also ignited new passions and instilled a lifelong dedication to learning.” 

Pursuing more innovations 

After a profound and meaningful experience at UW Bothell, Djelli is now poised to graduate. He will eventually attend medical school to pursue research on innovative technologies and treatments. “His care for other people and scholarly orientation have the potential to make profound difference in the world,” said Feldman-Bawarshi. 

“Djelli has inspired many others with both his academic and his leadership pursuits. His efforts are a product of profound perseverance and care not only for his family but also for his fellow students and UW as an institution. More than any other UW Bothell student I’ve known,” she said, “he has taken advantage of every possible opportunity at the University of Washington, and he has positively excelled.” 

On learning that he would receive the award, Berisha said, “The Chancellor’s Medal is recognition of how one overcomes adversity and continues to be a source of inspiration throughout the UW Bothell community — mentors of mine who have previously earned this award and fellow 2022 awardees are a testament to these values. 

“To be nominated and selected as a Chancellor’s Medalist is an honor I receive with deep gratitude and great humility. More than anything, this award encourages me to continue making an impact beyond my time at UW Bothell.” 

ASH SAUCEDO: 

headshot of ash

“It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” 

This quote by Albus Dumbledore, a beloved character in the Harry Potter book series, inspired Saucedo, a high school dropout, to return to education. 

Prior to continuing her studies at UW Bothell, she had been working at the University as a campus safety officer. “I got to know the staff and faculty and saw how much they wanted their students to succeed,” she said. “I felt pulled to try school again, and felt like here, at the University, I might just have a chance. 

“I think deep down I knew I was able. I just needed to be brave and make the choice.” 

Teaching for all students 

Pursuing a bachelor’s degree was a scary prospect for Saucedo, who historically struggled in classroom settings due to attention deficit disorder. She had a hard time focusing and sitting still, which in childhood often led to her being scolded by teachers. 

“Until UW Bothell, school had always been a very negative place for me,” she said. “But the incredible faculty and staff changed that and rewrote my experience, so much so that I went from hating the classroom to pursuing a career where I will never leave it.” 

An aspiring first-grade teacher to children with disabilities, Saucedo hopes to do the same — create an inclusive environment where each learner feels supported and valued. “I don’t want students like me to slip through the cracks,” she said. “My experience shaped the way I plan to teach my students. 

“I want them to each feel like their contributions are important, no matter what.” 

Making an impact 

Kristen Labrecque, adviser in Career Services, endorsed Saucedo for the award, noting that “Ash, as a non-traditional learner, will inspire students to embrace ways of learning, ways of knowing and ways of being that are aligned with her own strengths and abilities. Ash’s combination of witnessed adaptability and her own persistence will move mountains in the world of elementary education.” 

Labrecque said Saucedo’s ability to move mountains as a queer woman of color and child of immigrants is not surprising. “This learner has overcome multiple stigmas to find educational success thanks to her diligence and self-agency,” she said. “This human has shown me what she is capable of, and I have no doubt that students and the education system as a whole will benefit from Ash’s sheer force. Our UW Bothell community already has.” 

As part of her course fieldwork, Saucedo interned at West Hill Elementary School in Bothell, Washington. Among the many experiences she had in her educational journey, this was her favorite. “Seeing the kids was just the best part of my day,” she said. “They are at that age where they are so excited to be at school — so curious and full of questions. It rubs off and made me excited to be there every day, too.” 

Ash with friend

Saucedo with her first-grade students at West Hill Elementary School

Saucedo went into the internship hoping to make an impact, and when she returned to the school after spring break, it was clear that she had. The children swarmed her in the halls, calling out “Ms. Saucedo, Ms. Saucedo!” and running to give her a hug. “That was when I realized I had made a difference in their lives, that I was a person they looked up to,” she said. “I will remember that forever.” 

Just like she too, will always remember receiving the Chancellor’s Medal. 

Defining who you are 

“I am so beyond honored. I was honored just by the nomination — truly that alone would have been enough for me,” she said. “I went from a high school dropout to a Chancellor’s Medalist. I am really, really happy.” 

After her graduation from UW Bothell, Saucedo plans to return to her home state of California, where she will teach first grade students with disabilities. “I want to instill in them, from an early age, that it is the choices they make that define who they really are — far more than their abilities.” 


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