Jeremiah Hassel, Features Editor
Imagine moving to a new country for the first time. You barely speak the language, have never experienced the culture or the customs, and find yourself immersed in a student body thousands strong, struggling to fit in, to learn, to be successful, to make friends. Each year, hundreds of students at Penn State Behrend face the same harrowing tasks, to obtain an education in a foreign country. More often than not, the experience can feel like drowning in a vast ocean of students, overwhelming and terrifying. How, then, do these students survive college life and learn the skills necessary to thrive and to be successful?
For many at Penn State Behrend, the answer is Walaa Ahmad, the current assistant director for the office of educational equity and diversity programs at Behrend, who has dedicated her life to mentoring students from a multitude of different backgrounds, promoting leadership and diversity throughout both the Behrend and Erie communities.
Ahmad began the arduous journey to the fulfillment of her dreams right at Behrend, where she graduated in 2010 with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication and Media Studies (COMBA).
During her time at Behrend, Ahmad immersed herself in a number of different organizations, joining the Multicultural Counsel (MCC), the Organization of African Students (OAS) – which would later become the Organization of African and Caribbean Students (OACS) – the Association of Black Collegians (ABC), and the Lion Entertainment Board (LEB), which she would become the treasurer of her sophomore year. Ahmad also wrote for the Behrend Beacon as a staff writer, worked in both the Lilley Library and the copy center as a student assistant, and worked as a student assistant at the E. F. Smith Quality of Life Learning Center and Urban Erie Community Development Corporation.
“When I was here, I promoted diversity,” said Ahmad. “Being involved in clubs and organizations here on campus when I was a student here… really helped get me out of my shell. It really helped me enhance my leadership skills, my social skills, and my organizational skills.”
After graduating, Ahmad began working part-time at the WPSE radio station on campus as a creative assistant, editing stories before they aired. She also worked part time at the E. F. Smith Quality of Life Learning Center and Urban Erie Community Development Corporation, now serving as an administrative assistant.
Eventually, Ahmad was promoted to the assistant director position for the E. F. Smith Quality of Life Learning Center and Urban Erie Community Development Corporation, tasked with working with K-12 youth from all over the world and in charge of the mentorship program the organization hosts each year. Ahmad was able to partner with Penn State’s very own CORE mentorship program, helping a multitude of students and youth, some of whom would go on to attend Behrend themselves with Ahmad’s help.
Ahmad continued to build connections with the Behrend community, which eventually secured her current position working as the assistant director for the office of educational equity and diversity programs. “Starting here two years ago, I didn’t feel like I was coming to a strange place,” said Ahmad. “I felt like I was coming back home.”
Currently, Ahmad advises several multicultural clubs and organizations on campus, hosts diversity programs on campus, presents to freshman seminar courses about diversity, and generally works with the Behrend community to promote diversity through trainings and workshops. She also coordinates a mentorship program for first-year students to help them get acclimated to the college environment and life at Behrend.
“As a working professional here, it brings back a lot of memories,” said Ahmad. “It’s an opportunity to give back to my students and to share my experiences and skills that I gave when I was a student here, giving back to them, helping guide them through the process of planning for events and programs and other things.”
Ahmad also works closely with the Erie community, serving on Mayor Joe Schember’s board for diversity and equity for the People’s Supper, working toward promoting equity, diversity, and inclusion in the Erie community. She also currently serves as the secretary for the board for the E. F. Smith Quality of Life Learning Center and Urban Erie Community Development Corporation, a member of the board for the Erie Philharmonic’s Orchestra X program, and as a member of Behrend’s own staff advisory council.
Originally from Eritrea, a country in Africa, Ahmad is fluent in four languages, including her native language of Tigre, several dialects of Arabic, and English. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in higher education from the Penn State World Campus, which she hopes to use to begin an Arabic program at Behrend in the future. She continues to work on her language skills and hopes to add Hindi and French to her repertoire in time.
As a first-generation college student, Ahmad encourages others to take any opportunities that come their way, stating that other, different opportunities will come later on and that using capabilities and finding passion in a career is one of the most important things.
“I had a tremendous, great experience when I was at Behrend. I was surrounded with a lot of positive people, a lot of people who helped me grow,” said Ahmad. “Because of them and other support in my life, like my parents and other members of my family, I was able to accomplish my dreams by obtaining my degree, and now I’m giving back to the Behrend community, to the Penn State community.”