By Dermot Connolly
Sami Alahmadi, 23, who grew up in Hickory Hills. has been selected as the second Rhodes Scholar to represent Saudi Arabia, where he was born.
An aspiring physician, Alahmadi graduated in 2014 from Stagg High School in Palos Hills, and in 2018 he earned a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences with a minor in Spanish from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He now lives in the city, and is the second person affiliated with UIC to receive the distinguished scholarship. Rudyard Sadleir was chosen to represent the United States in 2000.
Alahmadi is among more than 100 scholars worldwide to earn the honor in 2019, making this the largest class of scholars in the history of the Rhodes Scholarship. Issued by the Rhodes Trust, it is one of the most prestigious international scholarship programs and enables outstanding students from around the world who demonstrate high potential in learning and leading to study at the University of Oxford.
Coincidentally, Palos Hills native Zuka’a Joudeh, a 2015 graduate of Stagg, was a finalist. She is a 2019 UIC graduate with a degree in political science and Germanic studies, and in September started a Fulbright English teaching assistantship in Germany.
Having been a finalist himself in 2018, Alahmadi said going through the application process a second time and to be named a Rhodes Scholar this year is incredibly “humbling and fulfilling.” He was born in Makkah, Saudi Arabia but spent most of his life in Hickory Hills.
“I am a strong enthusiast of language and I cannot think of enough words in any language to fully capture how honored I feel to be selected as a Rhodes Scholar. It means a great deal to me to be representing Saudi Arabia as the 2020 Rhodes Scholar-elect as my background as a Saudi and a Muslim have informed my goals of trying to make meaningful change for all people,” he said.
“I am excited to show Saudi Arabia and the world what I am capable of and to make a lasting positive impact on my home communities. I am also especially grateful to the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Education and to Muhammad Alagil who partnered with the Rhodes Trust to make this incredible opportunity possible for Saudis. It is in an indescribable privilege to have their support,” added Alahmadi.
In 2018, Majd Abdulghani, a geneticist at the University of Michigan’s Life Sciences Institute, was selected as the first Saudi Arabian Rhodes Scholar.
Alahmadi will go to England to study in September. The Rhodes Scholarship entitles him to at least two years of free tuition and fees, an annual stipend and travel to and from Oxford twice in an academic year. He will defer his medical education to pursue a master’s degree in global health sciences and epidemiology, as well as a master’s degree in public policy while at Oxford.
Alahmadi still plans to pursue a medical career with the goal of reducing health disparities. As an undergraduate, he conducted biomedical research in the lab of Dr. Akira Yoshii, assistant professor of anatomy and cell biology in the College of Medicine at UIC. Since graduating, he has been investigating genetic risk factors associated with neurodegenerative disorders in the lab of Leon Tai, an assistant professor of anatomy and cell biology in the UIC College of Medicine.
His volunteer work in Chicago’s low-income minority communities has included assisting hospice patients on the South Side, working at an immigration center serving Mexican immigrants and refugees, and tutoring students at a writing center. He also has campaigned for legislation to bridge social and health disparities for marginalized populations.
“Working in these capacities really showed me how every aspect of their lives were intertwined with one another and I saw how access to care dictated a great deal of their access to other things like education, employment, social mobility, happiness, and safety,” he said.
“I owe my mother, Betul Alahmadi, and father, Gilman Alahmadi, primary credit for all of my accomplishments throughout life. Their lessons of perseverance, compassion, and civic duty, along with the love, support, and sacrifices they made to ensure that I made the most of the opportunities we were blessed with are what guide me throughout my life,” said Alahmadi.
“I credit a great many teachers as far back as elementary school for nurturing an appreciation for learning throughout my development and for the incredible amount of care, sacrifice, and dedication they gave to all of their students,” said the Rhodes Scholar, who attended Glen Oaks Elementary School and Conrady Junior High before going on to Stagg.
“I could write an extensive list of all those that I think deserve recognition but chief among these influences are Mrs. Sullivan from Glen Oaks, Ms. Kizior, Mrs. Bauer, and Dr. Draguesku from Conrady, and Mrs. Schwartz, Mrs. Thyer, and Mrs. Frazer at Stagg,” he said.
“All of these teachers left an impression on me not only because they were terrific educators in their fields but especially because they truly epitomized what I believe a teacher should be: someone who has a vested interest in the current and future success of their students, whatever their goals may be. These teachers always went above and beyond, whether it was to meet me before or after school to discuss a difficult topic from class or to act as a compassionate listener when something else weighed on my mind. In fact, their impact was so important to me that I made sure to visit as many of them as I could to deliver the good news of the Rhodes Scholarship, and thank them personally for all that they've done. I consider myself privileged to have passed through their classrooms,” Alahmadi concluded.