East High Valedictorian, 2021, Roaa Alwazani

Roaa Alwazani, East ’21

Roaa Alwazani graduated from East High School as the valedictorian of the Class of 2021. I interviewed her at the request of Gene Carter, who funds a Wichita Community Foundation scholarship that was awarded to Roaa this year. Gene had arranged for several of us to meet her when we were in Wichita during the October 2021 Reunion. That didn’t happen, but he wanted to know more about her and to share her story with classmates. Roaa turned out to be a very interesting young woman – bright, idealistic, and a devout Muslim from a Palestinian family that migrated to the U.S. in 2006 and settled in Wichita.

As you would expect of the valedictorian of a large high school class, Roaa compiled a splendid academic record. She completed an exceptionally high number of courses, earning A’s in just about everything. During high school, she participated in activities and she worked in a restaurant, which she has continued as a college student. She also met the criteria for the Carter Scholarship, being an immigrant and in need of financial aid to attend college.

Roaa entered Wichita State University in fall 2021 as a second-semester sophomore.

Wait. Didn’t she just graduate from high school last spring?

Yes, but she took advantage of two ways to accelerate her path to a college degree and to save money on the cost of her education. First, at East High she enrolled in Advanced Placement and Dual Credit courses that result in college credit for students who score high enough on end-of-course tests. She earned A’s in all of her courses at East. Secondly, she graduated early, in December 2020, and went on to Butler County Community College to finish her general education requirements for WSU. This was a COVID pandemic semester, and her classes were all online. A highly-disciplined student, she did well in the online courses, but as a sociable young woman, she really missed the in-person interaction with teachers and other students.

How is she doing in her classes at WSU? Very well, and she is really enjoying them, partly because they are so different from high school. She does appreciate that East High did a good job of preparing her for college. Now, having completed her gen eds, Roaa is already taking courses in her major, Healthcare Management, to prepare for a career as a Physicians Assistant. She observed that these courses have immediate real-life applications, unlike the more abstract, introductory material taught in high school. Instead of being bombarded with facts to memorize, she is learning the facts in a healthcare context, so the content is easier to remember and more meaningful. She also prefers the freedom of the college environment and the ability to choose her classes and schedule. Her current schedule includes chemistry, studies in aging, the role of culture in healthcare, and introduction to public health. Chemistry, which she did not study at East, is the most challenging for her.

Roaa commented on another difference. “High school teachers were better able to make sure that students understood the material, since their classes were so much smaller, while college instructors go very fast, assuming that everyone is adequately prepared and keeping up.” She doesn’t mind asking a lot of questions and says that she enjoys the opportunity to advocate for herself.

At East High, Roaa participated in the Muslim Students group and in East’s charitable activities for the community. She tutored students in Arabic as part of her mosque’s outreach programs. Roaa’s parents made sure she learned English, but also retained her Arabic, which was the language of their home. She is continuing with tutoring in Arabic while at WSU and is just beginning to explore clubs and other activities. Opportunities to socialize are more plentiful for students who live in dorms on campus, she noted.

Roaa lives with her parents and sister in Wichita. Their home is just a few minutes from the local mosque, and Roaa continues to be involved in worship and events for children and families. She commented, “I am as involved in the mosque as I can be now that I am in college. I love staying busy and like to be at the mosque, where I am part of the community and can be with other Muslim young people.” (Left, Roaa and family at East High graduation)

Her parents traveled from Palestine to Dubai prior to immigrating to the U.S. The family has traveled back to the Middle East to visit their large extended family, including to Palestine, Jordan, Dubai, and Turkey. Roaa explained the importance of these connections in her life. “I am very connected to my culture and Palestinian roots. I am so proud of where I’m from, and I always take the opportunity to tell people my story and the history behind where I’m from. It’s a huge part of my identity!”

Realizing from his own experience that most Americans know very little about Muslim religion and culture, Gene Carter asked me  to talk with Roaa about her experience with prejudice against Muslims and with tolerance for diversity. Roaa first observed that East High includes students of many ethnicities and religions. The Arab-Muslim Students group was the smallest. She said that she never felt discriminated against at East; in fact, no one treated her as Muslim or Arab. However, she once encountered a school bus driver who insisted that a small group including her and her sister must not speak Arabic on the bus, because it was illegal. The driver reported them for being obnoxious on the bus. Administrators asked the students not to annoy the driver, which did not seem fair. “That was rare,” she said. “It happened, but it was not a big deal. It doesn’t happen regularly.”

Roaa noted that she does not wear a hijab, although her mother and sisters do. She explained that the decision “is entirely a matter of free will. That’s in the holy book. It would be a sin to pressure women to wear it. This was completely my choice.”

She went on to describe the significance of the hijab. “The hijab is not just a scarf. It is part of dressing modestly and acting with grace and kindness. It symbolizes value to others and represents Islam in a positive way. I believe that I represent those values myself without adding the head covering to my clothing.”

Above, Roaa and her family vacationing in Colorado in 2020, like many Wichita families.

Finally, I asked Roaa about her goals for the future in addition to practicing as a physicians assistant. She replied that she had thought a great deal about possibilities for making a difference in the world. “I want especially to help with the humanitarian crisis in Palestine. In the recent bombings of Gaza, people have lost their homes, their shops, their livelihoods, and family members. This is unacceptable. They do not have water or electricity all day every day. There are limits on their access to clothing and food. They have known only war, sadness, and tragedy. I want everyone to hear their stories and recognize their struggles. Once I have an established practice, I will be looking for non-profit organizations or other ways to help the people of Palestine.”

East High continues to graduate bright, talented young people who will go on to make the world a better place. Interviewing Roaa, who is a delightful and charming woman, was quite enjoyable. I hope we get to meet her in person in Wichita some day.

Roaa’s scholarship is one of many funded by the E. Eugene Carter Foundation at universities across the country. When asked about the scholarship for East High graduates, Gene said, “My interest in education led me to create a college award for an East High graduate selected annually by the East principal, preferably a first-generation-to-college student and/or an immigrant. I can recommend working with the Wichita Community Foundation, which supports many activities in the Wichita area and is a sort of charitable mutual fund. One can support recreation, health, art, education, nutrition, etc., generally or specifically.” 

— Marilyn Tompkins Bellert

  1. glenna park 10 months ago

    Roaa Alwazani appears to be a truly remarkable young woman who is eager to study and earn a significant place in her adopted country. She recognizes the possibilities of a good education and seems eager to engage in society. Fortunately, the Carter scholarship is designed to recognize the potential in Roaa and award her the financial support. The financial award encourages immigrant students at East High to make plans for an education without facing enormous student loans.

  2. Gene 10 months ago

    Some years back during a reunion, David Kroenlein, Marilyn Bellert, Diane Zinn and I met a top East High graduate, a Ukrainian immigrant who was attending WSU on a scholarship that I funded through the Wichita Community Foundation. She was heading next to KU for a graduate program in pharmacy. We found her to be a bright, interesting young woman who reflected credit back on East High. A wise older immigrant once sadly remarked to me that his family did not immigrate for a good life, only to escape a horrible one. The immigrant from Ukraine told us quite a story about the chaos in her homeland after the Soviet Union collapsed. Now an enthusiastic American, she seemed likely to become an asset in healthcare.

    The Reagan Library has an exhibit telling the story of Reagan and Lee Kwan Yew at a state dinner. Lee, leader of Singapore for decades, tough and ruthless, commented on the amazing range of Africans, Mid-easterners, Chinese and other Asians who seemed to acclimate so well in the U.S. Within a generation or two their kids were baseball fans, etc., considering themselves Americans. Reagan mused whether a native-born American could be so resilient in another country. Lee interrupted to tell him the process was not reversible, that only in America does this work. My Cuban-born wife Rita certainly shares his view.

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