'She Was Beautiful, Loyal and Tough'

Marine Sciences graduate Amirah Casey’s impressive list of accomplishments includes embracing her late mother's story as part of her own.
Story by John Thompson, Video by Luke Hollister and Sean Curtis Patrick

The story we tell about our lives is a story of how we view ourselves—and how we want to be seen.

For Amirah Casey, the first Outstanding Graduate of Western’s Marine and Coastal Sciences program, her story was one of success: immersing herself in marine science research, becoming the first undergraduate at WWU to teach a 200-level Biology lab section, co-leading Western’s cheer squad to its first national championship, and receiving full funding to attend a renowned graduate program at the University of Washington.

Her story is also about a young person whose parent experienced homelessness and addiction, and who lived with the stigmas that come with both. This is the part she hasn’t talked about very much.

“I am working on being more open,” she says. “It is a large part of my story, but it needs to be told correctly.”

An iron-sharp focus from an early age

Casey grew up in Spokane, the daughter of a single mom and the youngest of three sisters.

“My mom did an incredible job raising us. She worked so hard,” Casey says. “All three of us are college graduates; my sisters are a nurse and a teacher. School, art, sports—she made sure we had access to all of it. But she had a difficult life. We didn’t have a ton of money. My father was never a part of my life, and so it all fell on her.”

Casey, about four, with her mother in a gymnastics studio.
Casey's mom ensured her daughters had access to school activities, sports and arts, Casey says.

Amirah’s mother had struggled with addiction her whole adult life, and after a long period of raising her daughters and living in recovery, she relapsed when Amirah was 14.

“She never really came back from that,” Casey says. “She tried, so hard, but just couldn’t.”

As a result of the relapse, they were soon evicted from their home. The family scattered: Her oldest sister was grown and living across the state, another sister moved in with her father, and Casey lived with neighbors until she was 18 and graduated from high school. Their mother joined the vast number of people in this country saddled with the twin tragedies of addiction and homelessness.

“I can't even explain what that felt like; there is a such a stigma to both homelessness and addiction, such a sense of shame. And when she would enter a period of being clean, I could see that shame and regret on her face when I could visit with her,” Casey says.

Casey reacted to that stigma by keeping her home life private and maintaining an iron-sharp focus on her goals, like she always had—all while navigating the struggles of living with a new family.

Amirah Casey smiles in graduation regalia, holding a diploma cover and surrounded by her sisters, grandfather and mother.
Casey at her high school graduation with her mother, grandfather and two sisters.

“I remember how in elementary school all the kids were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, and there were the usual answers like ‘fireman’ or ‘farmer,’ or whatever. I said I wanted to go to Harvard and become a lawyer,” she says with a laugh. “So I guess I have always had that drive.

“And all of that comes from my mom. She was great because she knew I didn’t need any help focusing, and she knew when to just step away and let me just take the reins,” Casey says. Her mom also taught her to not worry too much about small set-backs. "She is the one who taught me when it is OK to just take a break, and how to regulate some of the perfectionism that I have.

“It made me very self-supported, which I needed to be from high school and on through college.”

She found that focusing on school—and choosing a new goal rather than celebrating each accomplishment—provided a consistency she didn’t have in other areas of her life. She was a valedictorian of her class, leader on the Mead High School cheer team and was offered full-ride scholarships for both UW and WWU.

“I was pretty sure I would go to UW, but something about my visit there just didn’t feel right,” she says. “Then I came to a cheer clinic at Western, and loved it, and it all fell into place.”

Building a life on campus

Casey came to college equipped with a set of survival skills that few of her peers had ever needed to develop. “I was excited for the transition, but still a little nervous,” she says. "After being deemed an independent minor, it feels a little bit like you’re leaving a fish tank and getting thrown into the ocean.”

Her first few days on campus, Casey attended an event for Western Success Scholars, which supports students who have experience with homelessness or the foster care system, and met program manager Lorrie Bortuzzo.

“It was always nice to know Lorrie was there,” Casey says. “Lorrie’s always talking about resources that we had available (in Western Success Scholars) and that made me feel a little bit more secure.”   

Casey thrived her first year, practiced and cheered at games with Western’s cheer team, and leapt at the chance to be one of the first students in the Marine and Coastal Science (MACS) Program.

She took her first marine science class that spring with Assistant Professor of Biology Jim Cooper, who would guide her through the next few years of research and scholarship. Cooper asked her to help with a marine science “boot camp” at Shannon Point Marine Center in Anacortes, where she introduced students to the diversity of nearshore marine life and taught them data collection techniques.

Casey, surrounded by students on a beach, looks at an item in another student's hand.
Casey was a peer tutor at a marine science "boot camp" at Shannon Point Marine Center. By the time she graduated, she was teaching her own lab section of a Biology course.

Casey built on these experiences: from peer mentor to teaching assistant to becoming the first undergrad to teach their own lab section for Biology 206, a job normally reserved for grad students or faculty.

After watching her work with fellow students at Shannon Point, Cooper also recruited Casey to work in his lab studying the effects of pollutants on marine life, and she worked there until graduation.

Casey hunched over a lab bench.
Casey worked in the lab of Assistant Biology Professor Jim Cooper, studying the effects of pollutants on marine life.

“Amirah is simply the most impressive undergraduate I've worked with in over 30 years of teaching at universities,” Cooper says. "I don't admire people easily – and this is certainly more of a reflection on myself than on others – but I have profound respect and admiration for Amirah.”

Casey helped Cooper establish his lab at Western after moving from Washington State University and pivot into new territory in fish toxicology, quickly learning new protocols and teaching them to fellow students. Cooper’s work explores how toxic chemicals called PCBs bioaccumulate in zebrafish; Casey focused on how PCBs interfere with zebrafish’s skeletal development and feeding success.

“I was amazed at how she is able to brush off setbacks, whether personal or professional, and remain focused on her work,” Cooper says.

The call nobody ever wants to get

The next two years were busy, continuing Cooper’s studies while branching off into her own research. She learned that while the concentration of PCBs is declining in Salish Sea killer whales, another pollutant, PBDEs, are increasing. PBDEs are flame retardant chemicals commonly found in furniture, drapes and other home furnishings. She won a small grant from the North Cascades Audubon Society to study PBDEs and surf smelt, a fish that forages bottom of the sea and serves as an early indicator for pollution in the food web.

Meanwhile, on the cheer squad, she was in charge of organizing instruction in tumbling technique, teaching her teammates how to fly with precision and be there to catch each other.

Cheerleaders perform a group tumbling routine with one in the midst of dropping from a handstand at the top of a human pyramid into the arms of teammates.
Casey, at right facing away from the camera to catch a teammate, organized training in tumbling technique for the Cheer Team.

She still figured out how to squeeze in a Spanish minor and received a competitive federal Gilman Scholarship to study abroad in Guanajuato, Mexico, spending the summer before her senior year with a host family and studying Spanish language and culture.

All the while, she’d get emails from Bortuzzo, checking in and reminding her about campus resources. And when she had the time, she enjoyed attending events with other Western Success Scholars.

Casey was hard at work on her surf smelt research with her eye toward the next goal: grad school applications. Then she got the kind of call few of us are equipped to ever handle: Her mother had passed away.

“I really didn’t know how to talk about it,” she says. “I didn’t want to burden to my friends with it. I didn’t feel like anybody would really understand, exactly.”

She decided to take a chance on Bortuzzo, who had become well-known among the Western Success Scholars as a good person to talk to.

It turns out, Bortuzzo’s mother had recently passed away, too. And she took a chance and shared that with Casey.

 “It was nice to know somebody else knew what I was dealing with, and Lorrie’s just great,” Casey says. “We had several meetings that year.”

No need for shame

As Casey recalls her last conversation with her mother, the tears begin to flow.

“I had seen her not that long before,” she says. “We had breakfast together in Bellingham and she let me know she was moving to Montana to live on some property our family owns, and that was the last time I saw her.”

But where for years Casey had hidden her feelings and fiercely guarded the details of her family life, even from those closest to her, the tears now fall freely, with no shame, and no worry about their repercussions.

“You have to understand – when some people learn your parent is struggling with addiction or homelessness—many people will never look at you the same way again,” she says. “I felt like I carried a lot of shame, but there’s no need for that.

“Since she died I have begun being more open about all of it. I’m not ashamed and I don’t mind telling others, because if it can help them to see what I have gone through, and come out the other side, they might be able to get some strength or solace from that.”

Casey spent months dealing with the family issues surrounding her mother’s death. But the vital work of gathering the data and the experience in Cooper’s lab proved to be more than enough for her successful application to UW.

This fall, she’ll continue her work on marine pollution and sea life at UW under her new advisor, Mark Scheuerell, in the university’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, where she was awarded a fellowship that covers tuition and a research assistant salary.

Another victory: Midway through her senior year, endless hours of tumbling practice paid off as Casey, now co-captain, led the WWU Cheer squad to its first national championship. But even those moments of joy were weighed down by sorrow.

“We had gotten first place for our situational routine and we all jumped up and started to celebrate—many of my teammates crying, even. I started to cry too, but it wasn't because I was happy we had won. I cried when all the parents ran onto the mat and celebrated with their kids.

“The last time I ever saw my mom I told her we were going to nationals and she said she was going to come watch me compete. It was the last plan we ever made together. So I was actually crying because while we may have just won, I had never felt more loss.”

The WWU Cheer Team poses with their trophies from the National Championships
The WWU 2023 National Champion Cheer Team

Advocacy and empathy

Her life experiences have made Casey a fearless advocate for those who are unhoused or experiencing addiction; she recalled a heated verbal exchange on a WTA bus with some young people who were taunting someone who appeared to be struggling with mental health problems and potentially addiction—and may have been unhoused, as well.

“To them, this person was just a punching bag, someone to be ridiculed,” she says. “They didn’t know what path had taken this person to get where they were that day. There was no empathy at all.”

Casey recalls how her mother always had a kind word for anyone she met who seemed to be in need, especially people who were unhoused.

“She had a huge heart,” she says. “And she was beautiful and loyal and tough and funny and protective, and I miss her.

“I really feel like she lived her life in two parts, separated when I was 14. Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 feel like two completely different stories of two different people. But being open to talking about both those parts of her story has allowed me the chance to begin to heal.”

And as Casey’s story continues to unfold, she ponders the path her life has taken to this point, thankful to all of those who helped her along the way, and more at ease with the story itself—all of it. While she’s becoming more comfortable sharing her mother’s story as part of her own, she knows those experiences don’t define her.

“It’s been a tremendous journey,” she says. “I don’t know when it’s going to stop, but it doesn’t feel like anytime soon. And to all those who helped me along the way, all I can say is thank you.”

Western Success Scholars

The Western Success Scholars program serves WWU students who have experience with homelessness or the foster care system.  

Led by Program Manager Lorrie Bortuzzo, Western Success Scholars provides support from a program coordinator and peer mentors, academic workshops, community-building social events, residence hall starter kits, access to emergency funds, and “warm handoff” referrals to other campus services like academic advising, financial aid and counseling and wellness.

Bortuzzo organizes events like whale watching excursions and “friendsgiving” dinners to help create a sense of community and support that students might be missing if they’ve experienced family trauma. She even sends them care packages. 

It’s about providing the kind of holistic support that might be missing for students who have faced family trauma or housing insecurity, Bortuzzo said. “One way to think about it is, if you were a student and your tire blew out, who would you call?”

The program got its start thanks to donor support: It was launched about four years ago with the help of seed money from a foundation in the Seattle area. Now, the program is sustained through institutional funds as well as state support from the Washington Passport to Careers program.