Undergraduate Academic Affairs

June 11, 2021

A subject to love, a determination to speak her truth

Jenelle Birnbaum

The diagnosis came on her first day of fall quarter. Cancer. Maha Alhomoud, newly arrived from Saudi Arabia had two options: Return home for treatment or stay in Seattle, attend the University of Washington and receive cancer treatment in the states.

Photo of Maha Alhomoud in the UN General Assembly

Maha Alhomoud at the UN General Assembly as a youth delegate for Saudi Arabia for the United Nations Youth Assembly in February 2019. // Photo courtesy of Maha Alhomoud

Alhomoud’s goal of attending university abroad began when she was 12 years old. She bolstered her admissions chances through summer programs, robotics competitions, independent study programs such as the Saudi Research Science Institute (SRSI) at King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST), and had a strong educational foundation in STEM, thanks largely to the King Abdulaziz and his Companions Foundation for Giftedness and Creativity, known informally as Mawhiba. She studied English in school from a young age and prepared for a career in STEM, most likely mechanical engineering. Yet participating in Model United Nations piqued her interest in international relations. Throughout these Model UN conferences, she represented Iran, France, South Korea and Bahrain and valued the broad perspective this gave her. She got her first taste of using her voice to drive change through participating in Toastmasters.

Photo of Maha Alhomoud in front of her research poster

Alhomoud stands next to her research poster in the Saudi Research Science Institute (SRSI) in 2015, a six-week research program at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST).

This strong foundation in math, science and international relations had Alhomoud considering a double major in engineering and political science when she first came to the UW. But the diagnosis meant she’d be splitting her time between the hospital and class, making it difficult to take any lab classes. Even so, she continued preparing for a possible career in both fields, taking math and political science courses.

She received treatment in Seattle throughout her freshman year. Her dad, who initially came just to help her move, stayed for the next 12 months to care for her. That year consisted of eight months of an intensive chemotherapy regimen, additional medications, hair loss, chronic pain and weakness, plus additional conditions — all while going through her first year of college.

“I was constantly studying at the hospital listening to my lectures that were recorded specially for me, and immersed in my studies,” recalls Alhomoud. “In a way, it was a distraction from my illness and in studying political science, I had found subjects that I truly loved and enjoyed studying, even throughout the most traumatic experience of my life.”

Finally, good news: The cancer went into remission and the treatments were complete.

Photo of Maha Alhomoud and her friend at Light the Night fundraiser

Maha, holding the red lantern, and her friend at a Light the Night walk organized by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Cancer survivors carry red lanterns and their supporters carry white lanterns. Photo taken pre-pandemic. // Photo courtesy of Maha Alhomoud

Throughout her sophomore year, Alhomoud debated majoring in engineering — the more straightforward career path — or political science. “I’ve had people tell me that there wouldn’t be many opportunities for women in political science in Saudi Arabia,” explains Alhomoud. “But, through my diagnosis and my own experiences, I realized that for me, the most important thing was to speak my truth and pursue my passions. Going from there, I decided that regardless of the obstacles that I would face as a woman, I would still pursue political science. And, today in Saudi Arabia, there are continuously new and exciting opportunities for Saudi women to participate in policymaking and politics.”

Political science and international student advocacy work become the new hallmarks of Alhomoud’s Husky experience.

Finding a home 7,000+ miles away from home

Back to that first day of school. She attended classes after spending the night in the emergency room due to difficulty breathing. The ER doctors strongly suspected cancer. As soon as they say this, Alhomoud senses it’s true, though the specifics of the diagnosis still needed to be confirmed. After her political theory class ended, Alhomoud shared the impending diagnosis with Associate Professor Emeritus Christine Distefano who responded, “Can I give you a hug?”

“This was my first time feeling welcomed on campus,” remembers Alhomoud. “Professor DiStefano’s warmth was reflected in the rest of the political science department. I felt I had found my home.”

Professor DiStefano continued to champion Alhomoud throughout her freshman year, inviting her to participate in an upper-level seminar. “As we got to know each other, we talked more about where I came from and what opportunities were available to me on campus. She also gave me a few books written by scholars about women in the Middle East, which gave me the confidence to incorporate my background and interests into my own work.”

As Alhomoud continued her studies, she met several political science professors who worked in Middle Eastern politics; several of whom had done extensive field work. They encouraged her to take graduate level classes, apply for departmental honors and participate in the Center for American Politics and Public Policy program. This gave Alhomoud a platform to deepen her understanding of the ways her home country’s economy, religion, language and politics have established the current state, and how they will continue to factor in as Saudi Arabia pursues its Vision 2030 transformation program to diversify its economy and improve the standard of living for its citizens.

Learning how to turn research into meaningful policy

Alhomoud’s departmental honors thesis examines the evolution of extractive and distributive institutions in Saudi Arabia since its establishment. “By studying how political, economic and social forces shape the institutions found in the Kingdom today, I am hoping that my future work enables me to evaluate current policies and predict which policies can strike a balance between ensuring economic diversification and inclusive reform that provides opportunities for every citizen.”

Her goal is to leverage her research into policy that shapes the development of sustainable, inclusive and progressive healthcare and employment policies, particularly for those from groups that are disproportionately marginalized in the Middle East. This work represents a bridge between Alhomoud’s studies at the UW and her next step as a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Middle East Center.

The Carnegie Gaither Junior Fellowship is a highly competitive program in which Alhomoud will join approximately 12 other students from across the country to work alongside the Foundation’s senior fellows. She’ll sit in on meetings with politicians, assist in research, contribute to their publications and get a firsthand view of how research becomes policy that benefits peoples’ lives.

“With the Carnegie Endowment, most of the scholars are experts in the region and have done extensive field work there,” shares Alhomoud. “I’m thrilled to be working in an environment where there is a shared experience of being Middle Eastern and where there is a focus on local narratives, citizen perspectives and incorporating primary Arabic sources.”

Undergraduate research project: Corruption, Foreign Direct Investment, and Tax Revenue: Survival and growth of the World’s Oil-Rich Nations

Still image from Mahas 2020 research presentation

Maha presented her research at the 2020 Undergraduate Research Symposium. Watch her presentation: https://youtu.be/RotAK9gaSho

Leading the way to the ASUW’s first international student office

Student government wasn’t something Alhomoud grew up with in Saudi Arabia. She was unaware it existed until a friend introduced her to ASUW her junior year. As she became involved in the UW’s student government, she saw an opportunity for better representation of international students. She co-founded the International Student Advocacy Group at UW and worked to give voice to the unique experiences and needs of international students. The advocacy group surveyed 270 international students to see if they were interested in having an ASUW office. A resounding 94.9% said yes.

In 2020, Alhomoud earned a Mary Gates Leadership Scholarship to form a task force to establish the first ASUW Office of International Student Advocacy led by students, for students. This marks the first time in ASUW history that international students have had a permanent voice and home in ASUW.

Mary Gates Endowment Leadership Scholarship project presentation: ASUW Office of International Student Advocacy

Representation for this diverse group of students matters. International students make up 15.5% of the UW’s student population and come from more than 100 countries. Some, like Alhomoud, are sponsored by their home government; some are refugees and asylum seekers; some want to return to their home countries after graduation; some are DACA recipients and others are hoping to immigrate to the United States. This diversity means there are many needs to represent in student government: financial, language barriers, representation and advocacy on campus, post-graduate career support and visa support.

Alhomoud graduates this spring and has worked this year to build the office’s foundation so it’s ready to launch next year. She’s defining the mission statement and goals, positioning the office within ASUW, determining the budget, creating job descriptions, and building relationships with long-standing campus entities that also serve international students. She’s building infrastructure to make sure needs are regularly assessed through constituent surveys and to build community and deepen cross-cultural understanding.

“I’m a little sad that I won’t be here to see the office kickoff its first year,” shares Alhomoud. “But I’m very happy that I’m going to graduate knowing that I created a tangible impact on our campus that will benefit international students and the broader UW community for years to come.”

Alhomoud is now three years into remission and reflects: “Freshman-year-me lying in the hospital never thought I would see myself being listed as a graduate with honors, and I cannot be more thankful for my family who supported me throughout treatment and my entire life.”

Photo of Maha in graduation attire on gold background

Maha Alhomoud, Class of 2021!

After completing her Carnegie fellowship, Alhomoud plans to pursue a dual degree program, earning a masters degree in political science and a law degree. From there, she hopes to create opportunities for women in politics in Saudi Arabia and that “her work contributes to a more nuanced understanding of the Middle East, and leads to more inclusive reform as countries diversify beyond oil, with a focus on sustainability.”