Every individual has a story. The greatest stories are those that are made by the hands of their makers. The story of my life represents a journey and I seek to write this narrative very carefully and deliberately.
The story of my life started when I began to see and understand the world around me, and these earliest memories are of when I was a child in a small village in Syria. I always loved challenges; I always wanted to be the best. Whatever I do, I wanted to find a way to improve. Later, I moved to the city. I moved to the capital Damascus chasing for better education leaving my hometown and my family.
I did well and I went to Damascus University to pursue my Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering. I didn’t know a lot about Civil Engineering prior to entering university. Later, I felt that it’s my passion. This is what I love doing. College life was interesting and a greatly different experience. In addition to my studies, there were activities to participate in, organization to volunteer with, and other associations to join in the planning and programming of events.
As a student in Syria, I had always had a goal to study abroad. I really wanted to go to the United States but it was always a “far-away” option because of the admission process and the expense. Damascus University regularly would send distinguished students to Europe to study abroad. That was fine with me since it represented my only chance to travel out of my country to a different culture and education system.
I kept working hard to stay on track for that plan till 2011 when the revolution started from my hometown, Daraa. With each day, the situation worsened because of the violence against my people who were asking for their freedom and for democracy. Because of my activism in support of free and open expression, and my fellow students and neighbors in Daraa, I wasn’t in a good situation.
I started thinking seriously of away to get me away from danger and so I can continue my studies, and further the pursuit of freedom and expression through engineering. I learned about an initiative from Illinois Institute of Technology to support university students from Syria whose education was being disrupted by the war – called the “IIT Syrian students initiative.” It was great news. The possibility of going to the place I really wanted to go to; the opportunity to study in one of the finest schools in the world. I went through the common application. I was so optimistic. Later, I got admitted and I was so happy. A lot of financial obstacles were there. I did my best looking for sources to secure the financial gap. That was the toughest part. Again, I did it. I arrived IIT. It was so nice and warm to have one of IIT staff (Megan Mozina) at the airport to welcome me. I got to know Gerald Doyle and Megan Mozina even before I arrived here.
On the night of my arrival, the Chicago weather was so very cold but I was excited to the point that I didn’t even notice how cold it is. I arrived at IIT to find out that all my Syrian fellow students are waiting for me to welcome me. It felt really a great feeling. I organized my room and got ready for first day of classes at IIT for me. I went to my classes and I was so excited. I was surprised a little bit because it’s a different education system than the one we had back home but I liked it. My professors were extremely welcoming – and supper nice – and took in consideration that I’m new. I thought — it’s real. I finally made it to Uncle Sam’s country, to the land of opportunities. It’s the American Dream. Nothing is stopping me from being a very successful person. I worked really hard. As a natural result, hard work paid off and I finished my first semester with a 4.0 GPA. I was invited to be a member of an honor engineering society called Tau Beta Pi based on my achievements. It always feels great to get to what you truly wanted.
During the next semester, IIT provided me with the opportunity to start working on campus so I can support myself. And I also fell in love with the city of Chicago. I’ve been living my dream.
One aspect of the educational system that we very different for me was the focus on in terms of general education classes that we didn’t have in the Syrian higher education curriculum. At first, I must honestly say that I did not like these courses at all because they did not directly relate to the study of engineering. As I continued my studies at Illinois Tech, I can honestly that these courses and my discussions with my faculty represented a great opportunity to learn about topics not related to Engineering.
One aspect of the educational system that we very different for me was the focus on in terms of general education classes that we didn’t have in the Syrian higher education curriculum. At first, I must honestly say that I did not like these courses at all because they did not directly relate to the study of engineering. As I continued my studies at Illinois Tech, I can honestly say that these courses and my discussions with my faculty represented a great opportunity to learn about topics not related to Engineering.
I took all my classes to be about the United States. I learned more about the history of capitalism, studied the history and implications of race and ethnicity in the U.S., explored the history of American Presidency and the founding of this Great country., and in each course reflected upon the lessons I would draw upon in the rebuilding of Syria.
The moment of landing in this country is a truly new birth and a new future for me. Somehow, I felt that I belonged here. Since my arrival, I have been encouraged to work hard, contribute to community service, to give back, and to play hard. I had the best three semesters at IIT, and two-weeks ago, I was graduated on May 17th 2014. I graduated with 3.93 GPA. I’m so proud of my self and I’m so proud to be a member of the IIT alumni community, and for me, this represents an honor and a privilege. During my studies at Illinois Tech, we were introduced to career fairs, internships, and a variety of career management workshops – all of which enable me to earn a full-time offer of employment weeks before graduation.
Now and I graduated, my story with IIT is not over. I have just started as a member of the IIT alumnus society. As a new member of the IIT Alumni Association, I am very grateful for what IIT provided to me and to the work of the more than 75,000 IIT alumni in more than 100 countries undertake everyday in the professional and personal lives to further the mission and vision of this university. For nearly 125 years, IIT alumni have helped us all get to this moment in 2014. As the newest members of the IIT alumni community, the Class of 2014 – and my fellow Syrian graduates – understand how deeply how important it is for us – for all of us – to pay these gifts and contributions forward to the next generation of those who dream of a chance at an education at Illinois Tech.
And as Syrian individuals, we should always keep in mind that we now have two countries – and two homes. Syria, the place of our birth and where are passports were stamped upon our departure; as citizens, we know that so many individuals, teachers, educators, colleagues and family members prepared us to get to this point, and we are grateful. We know that we have an obligation and responsibility to build again what was destroyed; this is our country of Syria, the one that we carry in our hearts wherever we travel. The country that we are obligated to build.
And the United States, and the city of Chicago – places that welcomed us in our worst crisis, the one that we have the honor to be in, the one that has provided us with great opportunities, education, and experiences and the one that we might be future actual citizens of.
My fellow graduates, our life hasn’t come to an end by graduation; it has actually brought us to the next stage of our journey. Let’s be great individuals no matter what we do, no matter where we are, and great as a team. Let’s change this world to the better.
Muzaffar Al Zoubi
Illinois Institute of Technology
Armour College of Engineering