One of the highest honors for any student is having the chance to make history at their school. Hadeel Abdallah is one of those students. Having been the first woman from UK to become a Rhodes Scholar, Abdallah, a double major in political science and Arabic and Islamic studies from Lexington, Ky., has made strides not only for female students, but also for the Muslim community she so strongly advocates on behalf of. We had the chance to sit down with UK’s latest Rhodes Scholar to discuss her passion for her community, public service, social justice and formative life experiences.
&: Did you always know what you wanted to do and what you wanted to major in when you went to college?
(HA): I came to UK undecided. Initially I was an English major, and I wanted to be an English professor. Now I'm a political science major, and I'm comfortable enough to say I don't know what I'm going to do yet. But you know what belief always gave me comfort in what I wanted to do? I always knew whatever work I will do will be undergirded by a lifelong desire to work towards an equitable society, a passion for social justice and a journey to uplift platform causes that are important to the world. For me, my journey at UK was about taking advantage of every opportunity, forever aware of these end goals. Though I still remain undecided about the exact career path I will take, I am certain in my beliefs that support profound, meaningful social justice for all.
&: Could you talk a little bit about what you got involved in at UK as a student and how that has helped you find your passion?
(HA): My sophomore year I became president of the Muslim Student Association at UK. The people I worked with were heavily engaged in the community. We started looking at the Syrian refugee crisis and wanted to channel our sense of hopelessness into something more positive and more beneficial, so we got in contact with Kentucky Refugee Ministries and the Islamic Society of Central Kentucky Refugee Resettlement Program, among other partners, to organize a benefit gala. We raised over $30,000, and experiencing that impact we had on the refugee community was life-changing. It’s where I realized students had the power to make such a difference, and community investment became even more important to me.
That amazing experience led me to help create the Bilal Ibn Rabah scholarship endowment, which provides funding and mentorship for underrepresented UK students, including students from our undocumented community. I believe this approach is crucial because mentorship has been invaluable to my intellectual development at UK. My mentors in the College of Arts & Sciences have exposed me to different aspects of academia, activism and community engagement, challenging me to think critically. Knowing their diverse perspectives on how to apply classroom knowledge to the real world has enabled me to think within an empowered framework to help my community.
&: How did you feel when you found out you received this prestigious award?
(HA): I instantly thought of my mother and father. They’ve done such an incredible job instilling positive attributes of faith, perseverance and integrity in my siblings and me, and without their amazing, selfless guidance and sacrifice I wouldn’t have been able to even dream of what I have done. They’ve always emphasized the importance of family and community, and it is because of how they’ve taught me to think that I am now able to do what I do.
Everything else has been great—the opportunities and the connections—but I think when you make the people you love really proud of you, it’s a special type of feeling.
&: What does it mean to you to be the first female to be awarded the Rhodes Scholarship at UK? You are now a significant part of UK’s history.
(HA): It is always humbling to be told that you are part of a history. The gravity of this award makes it even greater because it’s disproved a lot of stereotypes people have about Muslim women. It’s really changed the way a lot of people hold conversations with me. It went from, "So, are you comfortable in your own skin? Are you okay with looking like that?" to "You're such an inspiration for my daughter." It has created opportunities to have conversations about topics that before, people were too shy to discuss.
&: What message do you have for other girls who may be interested in attaining something like a Rhodes Scholarship?
(HA): Do not doubt yourself. Find a mentor who believes in you and stick with them. Don't be afraid to ask questions about things you’re unsure of, and don't be afraid to be straightforward. I have a pretty goofy personality, and I think that part of me shined through in my interviews. I know how difficult staying true to oneself can be in these situations, but it’s totally worth it in the long run. Once you break out of acting upon the expectations you think others are placing on you, you will respect yourself more over time, and that will have an effect on how others view you. Act like yourself. People appreciate you.
&: Where does your passion for public service come from?
(HA): I think this enthusiasm to give back is something that's been instilled in me since I was a kid. My family had a huge part to play in all of it: both of my parents are very giving people, and my siblings Kasem, Taha, Bader, Hanean and Nima don’t hesitate to help me develop in my character and in my outlook on life. Their immense generosity towards me shows that positive action starts with your inner circles and expands outward.