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Faith motivates first-generation student to succeed

Alaa Khalaf looks directly at the camera. She is wearing a black dress or top with small white dots arranged in vertical lines. A light blue scarf wraps around her head, covering her hair and draping over her shoulders. Her face is visible.

Alaa Amjad Khalaf is a first-generation college student who is proud to be a Palestinian Muslim woman. She credits her faith and family for inspiring her on her journey to earn two bachelor's degrees from ASU while also being a part of Barrett, The Honors College.

May 09, 2022

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

Family and faith are of the utmost importance to Alaa Amjad Khalaf, a first-generation college student who is proud to be a Palestinian Muslim woman.  

Khalaf is graduating as a Barrett, The Honors College student with bachelor’s degrees in political science and international letters and cultures (Arabic studies) from the School of Politics and Global Studies and the School of International Letters and Cultures, respectively. She added the concurrent major in Arabic studies midway through her time at ASU because she “realized that I need something that will always keep me connected to my Palestinian roots.” 

Khalaf moved to Palestine with her mother and brother after the death of her father when she was just 4 years old. Amjad Khalaf was her father’s name, and she feels honored to have it as part of her own name.  

Her father was “the joy and light of my life,” she said. “The clear memories of him and all the happy moments are engraved in my mind and will never be forgotten.” 

Khalaf’s mother dedicated her whole life to raising Khalaf and her brother. Along the way, her mother instilled in her the value of a good education, especially for women. She pushed Khalaf to do and be her best as a trailblazer in their family, the first to graduate college.  

In addition to her parents, Khalaf draws inspiration from her immigrant grandparents, who she said “taught me that hard work always pays off.” 

In particular, her grandfather, Nashat Khalaf, was a role model who demonstrated strength and dedication. He was a man of faith who achieved all that he envisioned and credited Allah for his successes. 

“The most valuable thing he has taught me is to put trust in Allah. With your trust in him, everything you will ever need will be handed to you,” Khalaf said. Her grandfather “taught me that anything you want and work for is yours. (He) taught me to take life step by step and to reach for the sky.” 

Everyone in her family is hard-working, Khalaf said, although she wasn’t a dedicated student in her younger years. But she wanted to make her family proud, so she worked hard to improve as a student so that she could achieve her goals. After graduating high school in Palestine, Khalaf moved back to the U.S. to attend college. 

“I met many people from different backgrounds and gained a ton of knowledge. I tried my best to be the best version of myself mentally and physically every day, month and year — meaning every day I had to improve,” she said. 

Her efforts were recognized by her professors, including Associate Professor of Arabic Souad T. Ali, who is the faculty head of Classics and Middle Eastern studies, coordinator of Arabic studies and founding chair of the ASU Council for Arabic and Islamic Studies. This spring, Khalaf was one of five students to receive the Dr. Souad T. Ali's Award of Excellence in Advanced Arabic.

“Her professional and extracurricular activities nationally and locally, including serving as an Arabic tutor and being a member of several student clubs promoting peace and cross-cultural understanding at ASU, has been remarkable,” Ali said.  

Besides her Arabic studies degree, Khalaf also was able to connect with her Palestinian culture through her honors thesis project, which she completed alongside her cousin, Rawaan Khatib. Khalaf and Khatib’s project, titled “Traditional Palestinian Recipes from Our Grandmother’s Kitchen,” documents family dishes and stories alongside a history of Palestinian cuisine and its most common ingredients. Prior to completing the honors thesis, the two cousins enjoyed Palestinian food but did not know much about its background or how to prepare it.  

“Learning the recipes and translating them into measured ingredients and actions helped them connect with their heritage,” said Honors Faculty Fellow Sarah Graff, who advised Khalaf on the honors thesis. “Creating the cookbook was a welcome reminder of her past.” 

Graff said the project encapsulated all the key parts of an honors thesis, starting with an idea the student is passionate about and extending through a demonstration of research and writing skills. It was creative, engaging and forward-thinking.  

“By learning how to make these recipes, Alaa and Rawaan can bring their cultural roots back into their own daily practice and preserve the techniques for future generations,” Graff said.  

The skills Khalaf demonstrated in her honors thesis project and all her coursework while at ASU will be valuable as she applies her degrees to her future career. 

“I have no doubt in my mind that she will be equally successful in any future academic field of study and professional career,” Ali said. 

Khalaf plans to celebrate her graduation by visiting Palestine to recharge amid family and friends before taking the LSAT and applying to law school. “From there, I will start a new chapter of my life,” she said. 

Starting a new chapter is something Khalaf has done a few times now. Between her supportive family and the strength of her faith, she knows she has all the tools she needs to trust herself, stay motivated and pursue her dreams.  

“After all, nothing you truly want or dream of is easy  it’s all hard and requires a ton of time and dedication,” Khalaf said. “Thankfully, with the support of my family and ASU professors, achieving my goals became a dash easier.” 

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