Commencement Stories — Shouq Sadah

Ph.D. graduate wants women to know they too can follow their dreams

Shouq Sadah is second from the right in the photo.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu) — Growing up in Saudi Arabia, Shouq Sadah didn’t know what her future would hold. She certainly didn’t believe she would be graduating with a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of California, Riverside, and that she would have such a strong desire to stay and continue her life and career in the United States.

“I’ve changed a lot these last seven years,” Sadah said.

One of eight siblings, Sadah grew up with a conservative family. The expectation was that she would marry, have children, and stay home — like most of the women she knew. But, Sadah wanted something different for herself. She can’t pinpoint when it occurred to her, but she does note that it was her father who inspired her.

“When I was one years-old, he went off to England to get his Ph.D. in geology,” Sadah said. “Originally, my mother and I, along with my brother, went with him, and my other siblings stayed in Saudi Arabia with my grandparents. But, my mom decided it was best for the family to be together, even if my father was in another country getting a degree, so we went back home.”

Her mom essentially raised the children on her own, and her father didn’t come back home until Sadah was eight. But he became her role model — she looked up to her father, and knew that getting a doctorate is what she wanted.

The road wasn’t an easy one, though. Sadah married when she was 17. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science in 2006 while in Saudi Arabia. Her husband didn’t want her to continue her studies. At 23, she filed for divorce, and moved back in with her family. “I was young and made the decision to get married, but he wasn’t the right guy,” she said.

“They supported me financially, emotionally,” Sadah said of her family. “They wanted me to go after my dreams, and so I did.”

In 2010, she applied for a King Abdullah Scholarship in Saudi Arabia, which allows recipients to complete their studies around the world. But applicants must have a male guardian willing to travel and stay with them. Fortunately for Sadah, her brother and her sister-in-law were willing to come.

Sadah was accepted to a few programs around the U.S. — one of them being UCR’s computer science master’s program. She decided to come here, and also participated in the UCR Extension Center’s ESL program. The scholarship allows the student to stay abroad for 12 months, which can be extended to 18 months.

“That first year was much more difficult than I expected,” she said. “There were so many things I wasn’t accustomed to doing for myself. I grew up with maids and with drivers. I had only occasionally gone to the grocery store and only for fun, I didn’t know how to drive, or how to cook — paying bills, finding somewhere to live — all of these things were very new to me. And, it was scary learning to do all of these things in a foreign country, and finding a way to support myself financially.”

Things settled for Sadah. She learned how to drive in two weeks, and passed her driver’s license test the first time around. She became much more independent — started working at UCR’s School of Medicine as an application developer. By June 2013, she had finished her coursework for a master’s degree, and decided to go for a Ph.D. She applied for a “scholarship upgrade,” which was granted and it allowed her to stay.

Things were going well for her, until December 2015, when she found out her mother had colon cancer.

“I wanted to drop everything and move back home. At that point I thought, I just want to be home with my mom, I don’t care if I finish my doctorate; she is the most important thing,” Sadah said. Her advisor, and her colleagues were supportive, telling Sadah that her position would be there when she returned. She left, and didn’t come back until February 2016. At that point, her mother’s tumor had been removed, and she was recovering.

Her return to the U.S. was also filled with a bit of fear, as hate crimes against Muslims were on the rise. She was also worried about traveling back to the U.S. after visiting Saudi Arabia.

“I luckily never experienced any racism during my time here. After the devastating shooting in San Bernardino, I had a moment when I questioned if it was safe for me to continue to wear a hijab. And, I remember my colleague turning to me and saying, ‘Shouq, don’t be afraid to be who you are — be proud of who you are.’ And, so I never did. UCR has really become a home for me,” said Sadah.

As of March 2017, Sadah finished her dissertation, and is a graduate of UCR, with a Ph.D. in computer science. She hopes she will find a job in California, and will be able to stay. But, more than that, she hopes her story stands as a testament to women all over the world, that they too can accomplish whatever they want.

“I really want women to know that they can have all of these opportunities as well. They don’t have to follow the one path that has been instilled in them since birth — go after what you really want in life.”

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