Whitman’s first Iraqi international student shares story

Every year, many new international faces appear on the Whitman campus. This year was no different from any other. However, one student came all the way from Iraq—the first of his country to come to Whitman. As many international students who have come to Whitman with different backgrounds, first-year Hasan Ali comes to the United States with a story of his own.

“It makes me feel really happy, and it makes me feel stressed to be the first student from Iraq. I feel like I have to work really hard to show the face of Iraq,” said Ali.

Hasan Ali is Whitman’s first student from Iraq.  Photo by Ben Woletz.

Despite the fact that there has been a war going on in Iraq for about a decade, Ali was able to focus on getting a great education. Coming to Whitman was no swift decision, as he had other opportunities to get a quality education coming out of high school. Prior to Whitman, Ali attended the University of Oklahoma in the fall of 2009 on an ExxonMobil scholarship and studied computer engineering.

“I was studying computer engineering, but my experience with University of Oklahoma was not the best. The computer engineering major was intensive work, and [I] did not really feel for it at the University,” said Ali.

Later, the ExxonMobil scholarship discontinued funding Ali’s education, and so he had to return home. He could not attend college in Baghdad because the laws restricted him from transferring from a school in the United States to a school in Iraq. He could not attend a private college due to the cost.

While back home, Ali applied to the Iraqi Student Project, a nonprofit program that partners with American colleges and universities with the goal of helping war-displaced students get a good undergraduate education. Ali studied with the program for a year in Damascus, where he later found out about Whitman.

“The program knows, through their connections, several colleges, one of which was Whitman. I applied to four colleges, and Whitman was the first to give me a scholarship. To be honest, it was my favorite college,” said Ali.

Ali’s extensive education in Iraq allowed him to apply to more competitive U.S. schools like Whitman.

“I went to a private school that is free, but [you] have to go through an IQ test to be able to go to this school. It is the most well-known school in Baghdad, and everyone in Iraq knows it,” said Ali.

Although he also applied to other U.S. colleges, Ali knew that Whitman was the school he wanted to attend.

“I actually tried the hardest on Whitman’s application because when I Googled which colleges change the lives of students, I found that everybody at Whitman was happy, and [Whitman] was indeed the college that changed the lives of its students. I was not able to actually visit Whitman, therefore I Googled Whitman,” said Ali.

Even though he was studying computer engineering at the University of Oklahoma, when coming to Whitman, Ali decided to revert back to an undeclared major. He is interested in politics and psychology and hopes to help his country in its challenging time with his education.

“After my life has been changed at Whitman, I need to change the lives of other people. I am thinking of majoring in politics because the politics in Iraq [have] been really bad for the past 50 years,” said Ali. “I am also thinking of majoring in psychology because before the war, there was this oppression, and after the war, there was even more oppression, where the people were seeing things people shouldn’t be seeing.“

His experience at Whitman thus far has been fairly typical of most Whitman students—balancing the many hours of homework with involvement in various extracurricular activities and a job with Whitman College Technology Services.  

“I looked at other schools, and I didn’t see anything like Whitman. Whitman is engaged with the student body and everyone is involved with nature. Everyone knows everyone here and is friendly. That was what attracted me to Whitman,” said Ali.

Ali will not be returning to Iraq until he has completed his four years at Whitman, due to his contract with the Iraqi Student Project, which states that he cannot return to Iraq on breaks. However, Ali is not concerned about returning home on breaks as he has alternative plans.

“I have made good friends [whom] I may stay with on the breaks. Maybe [I will] work during summer on campus. If not, I can go to my support group in Seattle and stay with them. [My] support group [is a group of] people who help me financially and with any needs I have during my stay,” said Ali.

By the time he finishes college, Ali wants to make sure that the Whitman community understands Iraq’s situation. When he does finish his four years, he hopes to end the social inequalities that have radically changed after the war.

“I don’t only want to be changed, but I want to make change. People need to know about Iraq’s positive and negative areas. America is not interested in Iraq anymore because the war is over. I want to [help] the people here [learn about] Iraqi culture. If the future leaders of the people know what happened and why, and what people can do, I’ve done my mission,” he said.




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