When Amaleed El Mehdiwi enrolled at Spokane Community College in January 2014, she thought her best choice might be classes for future secretarial work.
She had a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Benghazi, Libya, but she only spoke a few words of English when she arrived in the U.S. a few months previously.
But SCC instructors encouraged the fast-learning El Mehdiwi to study architectural technology instead; she’ll graduate Friday with an associate degree and 4.0 GPA. She’ll also be the first graduating SCC student to transfer directly to Washington State University’s architecture program as a junior under a new agreement between the two schools.
“I want to be a licensed architect,” said El Mehdiwi, 39. “I’m going to get my bachelor’s degree in architecture, and maybe a master’s degree.”
“I was still undecided when I found out about this program,” she said. “I found it very exciting, and, why didn’t I do this before? It’s just my thing.”
She’ll be on the Pullman campus Monday to start a WSU design class this summer that’s required before her junior year in the fall.
El Mehdiwi has U.S. citizenship and was born in this country when her parents were graduate students at the University of Kansas. Her parents returned to Libya with her when she was still an infant, and El Mehdiwi had lived in Benghazi since 1990. The country was ruled under longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, ousted from power in 2011.
She had heard stories from her parents’ time in the U.S. “Their experience here made it more appealing to me. I was curious to see what it looked like. I wanted to see another life and make another life because I knew I couldn’t do it in other places,” El Mehdiwi said.
When she left Libya, the country was still somewhat stable, she said. But sometime in the past year, terrorist activity forced her father and stepmother to leave their neighborhood, and El Mehdiwi lost everything she’d left behind.
“Extremists, I don’t know if ISIS or not, they got in our properties; we don’t know what happened to stuff and our houses,” she said. “Land mines were left, so no one can go there. My stepmom, she has property; they went there to another safer place in Benghazi.”
A sister fled to Egypt, she said. Two brothers already lived outside of Libya.
After El Mehdiwi decided to move to the U.S., a friend in Pullman suggested SCC. She took a class in English as a second language while briefly in Pullman, then moved to Spokane to enroll in January 2014 in the SCC college prep class taught by Heather Edwards.
Up to half of the students in college prep are refugees, including many from Iraq and Afghanistan who were embedded with U.S. troops, Edwards said. Others are U.S. high school graduates or older workers who’ve been laid off, but all need some support transitioning and learning how to write research papers, find careers, and match interests or backgrounds.
“Amaleed was a standout, I’d have to say,” Edwards said. “I really encouraged her to broaden her horizons. She was thinking she could be a secretary, and I’m like, no, you can do so much more.”
By fall 2014, El Mehdiwi started the two-year program that teaches multiple technical skills used in the building design industry. It includes computer-aided drafting, 3-D modeling, and other applications. Students also do a major design project each year, and both of El Mehdiwi’s projects were selected for display at River Park Square during National Architect Month.
One was a condo design, and she completed a prototype concept for student housing that would use large shipping containers.
“The idea of design itself is interesting,” she said. “It’s a balance between using my creative and analytical skills.”
Architectural technology instructors described El Mehdiwi as hardworking but also one who quickly absorbed college prep skills. Her research papers – written in English – were among the best, they said.
Depending on preparations for her Pullman move, El Mehdiwi said she’ll try to attend SCC’s commencement Friday at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena. She’s also fasting for Ramadan, she said.
Edwards, her teacher, hopes to enlist help from others at SCC for El Mehdiwi’s move so she can take part in the graduation.
“She’s so bright and has so much going for her,” Edwards said.
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