Message from the President: Universities like Western have the power to change lives

Sabah Randhawa

The phrase, “it takes a village to raise a child,” originates from an African proverb and conveys the message that it takes many people to provide a safe, healthy environment for children, where they are given the security to develop and flourish and to realize their hopes and dreams. This was on my mind as I read the story of recent Western graduate Amirah Casey, and how her will to succeed combined with the right kind of supportive services and academic mentorship helped her to become the first Outstanding Graduate of Western’s Marine and Coastal Sciences (MACS) program and go on to the Applied Ecology Lab at the University of Washington where she is currently pursuing a graduate degree in aquatic and fishery sciences.

This path to success, however, was hard to imagine for Amirah at age 14. During a difficult period in her childhood, her family was evicted from their home and forced to split up. Amirah lived with neighbors until graduating from high school.  

Amirah found that focusing on school provided a consistency and sense of accomplishment that she didn’t have in other areas of her life. She thrived at Western thanks in part to the supportive community she found in the university’s cheer team and through close collaboration with faculty mentors in the MACS program. She took her first marine science class in spring of her freshman year with Assistant Professor of Biology Jim Cooper, who would go on to guide her through the next few years of research and scholarship.  

Amirah also found a supportive environment in the Western Success Scholars program, which started about four years ago with the help of private donations, to support students who have experienced homelessness or the foster care system. While Amirah’s schedule was packed with her studies, her research work and leadership on the cheer team, Western Success Scholars Director Lorrie Bortuzzo stayed in touch with her and helped her through some especially difficult family issues, as you’ll read.

This issue of Window Magazine also contains stories of WWU graduate student Annie Jolliff’s research on bumblebees in Whatcom and Skagit counties and of Brendan Mudd, an industrial design alum who invented a keychain that can deliver a life-saving dose of naloxone.

The magazine includes a Q&A with Jane Wong, associate professor of English. I had the distinct pleasure of reading Dr. Wong’s “Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City” over the summer.  Her lyrical, witty and very well-regarded memoir about growing up as a “restaurant baby” in a working-class Asian American family is but one example of the creative talent of our faculty in the humanities and across academic disciplines.  

Stories like Amirah’s—and other stories in this edition—remind us of the importance of our holistic work across the university. Providing extra support to bright students who have faced family trauma or housing insecurity, channeling a love for industrial design into a potentially life-saving device, and calling on a talent for poetry and storytelling to deliver a memoir that could open minds and hearts to others’ experiences: They’re all examples of the power of universities like Western to improve the lives of others.

Sabah Randhawa is president of Western Washington University.