Dean's Award - NSM: Seham Aldafari's early days in Yemen fuel her desire to help others
May 10, 2021
In her home country of Yemen, Seham Aldafari grew up in a community where poverty was visible all around, electricity was unreliable, and women were discouraged from pursuing higher education and careers.
Aldafari wanted more, both for herself and for others who faced financial, cultural and racial obstacles.
When she was 9 years old, her family immigrated to the United States, and Aldafari indulged her passion for education. Despite many barriers, including her inability to speak English and her unfamiliarity with America’s cultures and traditions, she graduated from high school and began navigating a path to college.
NAME: Seham Aldafari, NSM Dean’s Award Winner, President’s Medal Winner
HOMETOWN: Sanaa, Yemen
DEGREE: Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences
WHY SAC STATE: “I wanted to go to a place where I could get to know my professors and other students, somewhere I felt welcome, somewhere that was diverse. Sac State was my perfect place.”
QUOTE FROM NOMINATOR: “Despite a lifetime of being told education was not a goal she dare aspire to, and with seemingly unsurmountable barriers in her way, Seham is thriving in her coursework, excelling at research, and simultaneously dedicating herself to advancing antiracism and lifting up her community.” - Biology Professor Kimberly Mulligan
The journey took her to Sacramento State, where she will graduate this month with Dean’s Award honors and as winner of the President’s Medal, given to the University’s top student each year.
Aldafari excelled in her Biology program, where she has worked in a research lab, and earned high grades. Across campus she has been active in clubs, organizations, and committees centered on inclusion and antiracism.
Biology Professor Kimberly Mulligan, in whose lab Aldafari has worked for the past year, called her “the epitome of resilience” and said she is “incredibly bright, intrinsically motivated, always reliable, and exceedingly kind and supportive of her classmates.”
“She is truly an ideal research student,” Mulligan said.
Aldafari said her early experiences in Yemen helped shape her path and worldview.
“I was very much aware of how women were treated in society, and it didn’t feel good,” said Aldafari. Men were free to work or engage in social gatherings, while women were expected to stay home. Women ate their meals only after men were served. Girls and boys went to separate schools, and young women were expected to raise children rather than pursue careers.
“There is nothing wrong with being a wife or a mother,” Aldafari said. “That’s a great thing. But I wanted to do more to contribute to society.”
Aldafari has long had a fascination with physiology and “how the body works,” she said. “I took an anatomy class in high school, and the more I learned the more I fell in love” with the biological sciences.
After attending community college in Stockton, she enrolled at at Sac State. “Everyone has been so kind,” she said.
“The professors have been absolutely amazing. It’s been everything I wanted and more. I’ve learned so much about myself.”
In addition to her studies, Aldafari has served as president of the Women in STEM Club and helped found the Muslim Women Coalition Club. She also serves on the Cross Racial and Inclusive Engagement Committee, which is part of an initiative to make Sac State an antiracist campus. Recently, she became a Health and Human Services Coach for the DEGREES Project, helping students progress toward their degrees in an effort to close the equity gap.
“I try to live my life in a way that pushes me to be active and raises the voices of women,” she said. “I want everyone to have the kinds of opportunities and experiences that I have today.”
Aldafari aspires to be a physician, and soon will apply to medical school. She urged others, regardless of their backgrounds or circumstances, to chase their dreams.
“I would tell students to get involved,” she said. “Get yourself out of your comfort zone and push yourself. It’s going to change you as a person. Also, believe in yourself and work hard. You need to be your own biggest supporter.”
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