Ayah Hamdan: ‘I’ve learned self-advocacy is the most important skill in life’

Ayah Hamdan smiles for a portrait

After public health major Ayah Hamdan graduates this May, she’s off to Harvard to get her master’s in science and epidemiology. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

“I’ve been a part of a number of different groups at Berkeley. When I first got here, I joined the Muslim Student Association and Students for Justice in Palestine because those are my two main identities. Aside from being American, I’m Muslim and Palestinian. And I wanted to find people I could relate to on an identity level.

For the past few semesters, my main focus has been regarding Islamophobia’s impact on public health. I’ve explored the issue in my classes, presented on it and wrote an article for a student-led journal called the Public Health Advocate. Under the Center for Race and Gender, there is an Islamophobia Studies Center. And I’ve been volunteering with them for a while, just helping plan different conferences that are held here at Cal. My main project has been putting together a report about how Islamophobia impacts public health. That’s been my main extracurricular commitment outside of classes lately.

Berkeley was a lot of stimuli in a short period of time. Berkeley is learning a lot about your field of study and learning a lot about yourself and your capacities and your limitations and your own identity.

I’ve learned that academia is a place for me. Coming to Berkeley from community college, I felt like I was going to be dumber than the other students who were here. But I learned that I can thrive in academia, as long as I’m willing to hold people accountable for treating me fairly. I’ve learned self-advocacy is the most important skill in life — not letting any authority figure, other students, make me feel like I can’t do something. It’s all about having that belief in myself.

I’m starting my master’s in science and epidemiology at Harvard in the fall. As a public health person, I’m passionate about pretty much everything, ranging from refugee health to diabetes prevention to treating cardiovascular disease. I would like to get a Ph.D. in a public health-related discipline. I would like to do research on maternal health within refugee communities, especially in the Middle East. That’s my aim, but we’ll see where I end up. I love my field of study. I love public health.

So, at this point, since I have been able to balance my family responsibilities with the really rigorous academics here with my other passions, as far as social justice work, I feel like I can handle anything. I think that’s something that you hear from other students at Cal. You hear it in the classroom. Once you conquer Berkeley, you can take on anything.”