Growing up in Jordan, Reham Ali, the youngest of 10 children, dreamed of becoming a pharmacist.
Her mother had tried to bring her to this country for years. "It was a dream to go to the United States and get a degree," she said. Then, when she was 20 and had just about given up, the embassy called.
"I was so scared when I came here. In Jordan, you don’t get to experience real life until you get your degree," she said. Here, she got a job at a gas station to earn money.
Relying on the basic English she studied as a second language in high school, she said she sometimes didn’t understand customers. "If they wanted cigarettes I’d have to ask what color the package was or ask them to point," she said. "I was ashamed for my accent. I was afraid they were going to look at me and say, ‘She’s dark, she has an accent.’"
Now, she said, she doesn’t worry about those things. "Three years ago, I would have stood here shaking," she told attendees at a recent luncheon for the Access program, which serves students who are either low-income, the first in their family to go to college or disabled. "Now I’m not scared. I don’t care about my accent. I know that you don’t look at me like that. I made myself here."
That confidence is just one reason why she was named Student Speaker at the college’s 44th commencement on May 15, an honor bestowed to only one of the more than 1,400 graduates each year.
Ali said she used to be a quiet person in Jordan. "I did not speak a lot, but I decided when I came here that I want to speak with you," she said. "I wasn’t comfortable for the first six months, but now I still go to malls and speak with people."
As her skills grew, she enrolled in school. "I decided to take the challenge of college," she said. "I don’t want to be a wife for someone or a mother for someone. I want my identity. This is why I wanted to become a pharmacist, because it’s a very hard thing to do and I want to help people."
She found CCRI was the perfect place to start her American educational career.
"I came with nothing and then I started my journey here at CCRI," she said. "It’s a very warm, wonderful place." She said was comfortable in the small classes. Her professors would ask her after class if she was having difficulty understanding the material. "The teachers are my best friends here. They taught me English words and really cared for me as a student."
As she excelled, her confidence grew. "I didn’t just pass the classes, I aced the classes and I thank my teachers for that. This place has prepared me well."
Ali is graduating with a 3.86 GPA and, this fall, she will enter the University of Rhode Island’s new pharmaceutical engineering program – another step toward realizing her dream of becoming a pharmacist.
"Not many women have gone into the field," she said of pharmaceutical engineering. "I want to visit Jordan and tell them what I have accomplished."
She told her fellow Access students at the recent awards luncheon: "Back in Jordan, I would have never been able to do this. I came here to become Reham Ali. I am so proud of myself." That afternoon, Ali received the St. Dunstan’s Scholarship and was recognized for not only her academic success, but also for helping her fellow students achieve their own goals by serving as a peer tutor in chemistry.
She knows her journey is just beginning. "Hopefully, three or four years from now I’ll come back and tell you, ‘This is what I achieved.’"