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Mahdi Ramadan, Washington State Opportunity Sc
Mahdi Ramadan, Washington State Opportunity Scholarship recipient, speaks at the launch of GeekWire’s Geeks Give Back philanthropic campaign, sponsored by Bank of America.

Optimism and perseverance, in the face of obstacles big and small, was the message from Washington State Opportunity (WSOS) scholar Mahdi Ramadan at the recent GeekWire Summit. He moved the crowd with the story of his family’s forced evacuation from Lebanon, his sister’s neurological illness, and his thriving academic pursuits, despite these challenges.

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“None of this would have been possible without the help of the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship,” said Ramadan. “Since it helps me follow the passions of my heart, rather than be limited by the financial circumstances of my family.”

Ramadan’s speech at the GeekWire Summit was part of the launch of GeekWire’s Geeks Give Back philanthropic initiative, sponsored by Bank of America. The program supports WSOS’s mission to help low-income students earn degrees in STEM education fields. You can learn more and contribute here.

Watch and listen to his GeekWire Summit talk below, and continue reading for an edited transcript.

A couple weeks ago, I was taking a nice walk around Green Lake with an old family friend that’s known my family for ages. Me, being naturally shy and not having seen this older lady for fourteen, fifteen years, I didn’t now what to talk about at first but then I started telling her about my experience at the University of Washington, the studies I was participating in and my dreams and goals for the next ten years.

I could tell from her smile just how happy and proud she was. Since she knew my family ever since they were in Lebanon, ever since they immigrated to the US and she knew the dire circumstances they were in before. As we were walking along, she slows down and she stops and then she asks me, “Mahdi, do you know what a Joury rose is?” I think for a moment and, “No, I don’t know what a Joury rose is.” She tells me, “A Joury rose,” which is J-O-U-R-Y also known as the Damascus Rose, “is a rose that grows in some of the snowiest and most desolate places in our home country of Lebanon. Where nothing else grows, you’ll find the Joury rose. More than that, it has one of the prickliest and thorniest bushes of any rose but despite all that’s going against it, it flowers into one of the most beautiful, densely petaled roses and it gives out a beautiful poignant smell that it’s known for in the region.”

The Joury rose. Photo via Wikipedia.
The Joury rose. Photo via Wikipedia.

Then she pauses and she looks me in the eye and she says, “To me, you are my Joury rose.” That was a very powerful experience and I’ve been thinking about that. Yes, I am a Joury rose. Let me tell you about the thorns in my life. The thorns in my life I can divide up into big thorns and small thorns. The big thorns in my life are things like poverty, where my family couldn’t afford new clothes or new school supplies or even internet access at times.

Big thorns in my life are having to evacuate at the young age of eleven from my home country of Lebanon while it is being torn apart by war and conflict. Big thorns in my life are then, at that very young age, having to come and quickly learn a new language, a new culture and a new way of life. But I also realized that the small thorns, the subtle, everyday things also had a very powerful impact on me. The small thorns were things like having to take responsibility even though I was very young of communicating with my sister’s doctors since my sister has cerebral palsy and I spoke English best in my family.

Small thorns in my life are having to sit at family dinners and overhear family and friends discussing my future, about how it was unknown, unsure or unstable. Yet of all the options they talked about, college was never one of them. Small thorns in my life are when I finally decided to pursue a higher educational degree, having to research what a scholarship is, how to pay for college, what an internship is because neither of my parents attended college.

I couldn’t ask my mom for advice, so I ended up asking Google. You might be wondering, since I’m up here having the honor of telling you my story, that there must be more than just setbacks and struggles and you’d be right and you can thank my sister for that because ever since I was a young boy, my sister taught me that you could shape who you want to be with the work you put into yourself. Doctors never thought my sister would walk, yet after she trained and practiced, even though it was very delayed, she learned how to walk independently at the age of six.

Family and friends never expected her to graduate high school, let alone go to college, yet I could proudly say that my sister is pursuing a degree in occupational therapy in college and she is doing excellent. Time and time again, she has instilled hope in me that despite any struggles or obstacles, you can overcome them with determination and a dash of positivity and optimism and that’s a lesson that I’ve taken to heart and with that in mind, I’ve accomplished a lot.

Mahdi Ramadan - GeekWire Summit 2015One of my accomplishments was graduating high school with an international baccalaureate diploma and then the government housing complex, where we used to live, they held an annual graduation celebration. Out of 383 units, and you heard that, 383 units, I was the only one there who graduated high school and was going to a four year university. To my community, that was a big deal and I was shown a lot of support and appreciation.

Another big accomplishment was getting into the University of Washington and studying neurobiology, a topic I’m very passionate about but even more so, having the opportunity to do research and participate in internships in neural engineering. Neural engineering takes what we know about the brain and combines it with what we know about computers to develop new technologies that have the potential to rehabilitate thousands of individuals with neuromuscular disabilities. And my dream is that, in 10 years from now, I will be able to lead a research lab or company that could develop even more advanced technologies that could, for example, help paralyzed patients regain their ability to walk by bypassing their spinal cord injury. Or helping individuals with cerebral palsy, such as my sister, regain the ability to do even simple tasks, such as use a knife and fork to eat.

None of this would have been possible without the help of the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship. Since it helps me follow the passions of my heart, rather than be limited by the financial circumstances of my family. And for that, thank you. But also realize that there are many other young people out there, just like me, and we, all of us here, have the power, we all have the power to change their lives, give them an opportunity, and help them reach their full potential. So let us all together, plant whole mountainsides of Joury roses, and let’s make this world beautiful.

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