Alma Khasawnih


  • Master’s degree in Art + Design Education, Rhode Island School of Design
  • Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Policy and Behavior, University of Michigan

“It takes a village to get a Ph.D.,” says alma khasawnih, ’18, a graduate student in the Department of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies. “None of us does this alone.” (alma prefers to spell her name with lower-case letters).

A fifth-year Ph.D. student, alma studies the graffiti and murals in Cairo starting from the beginning of the Egyptian Revolution in 2011 to the present. She looks at these works for insight on gender, class and morality in Egyptian society, and what they can tell us about access to the street in a moment of national transformation.

This quarter, alma spends most of her time writing her dissertation, thanks to a Presidential Dissertation Fellowship from the Graduate School. The Presidential Fellowship relieves alma from teaching duties for one quarter, freeing up her time to focus on writing. It’s been a welcomed change, she says.

But funding her work hasn’t always ended with such successes, she says, and often feels like an uphill battle.

As for many women of color in academia, the legitimacy of alma’s work and credentials is often (erroneously) called into question when before predominantly white, male review boards, she says. “We (women of color) are often told (by grant review boards) we’re too close to the work; we’re not objective,” she says, particularly if the academic chooses to study people of color.

Nevertheless, alma says these pressures mean women of color need “to have very different kinds of conversations about why our work matters, and write about our work in ways that illustrate (its significance) to readers who are not as invested in our communities as we are.”

Having these discussions is a painful, but necessary process, she says: necessary not only for supporting her own research, but for advancing the prospects of future generations of women of color in academia.

Within her department and among her peers, “we’re all in conversation of ‘how do we push the boundaries (of academia) further?’ That conversation, for me, is solace,” she says. And the idea that future generations of women of color might find a slightly easier path through academia because of this work is a source of strength, she says.

But for facing the day-to-day challenges of living as an underrepresented minority on a predominantly white campus, finding communities on campus where people are facing similar struggles has been crucial.

She says one of those communities is the Graduate Opportunities & Minority Advancement Program (GO-MAP)* program, a Graduate School initiative to recruit and retain students of color on the UW campus.

alma was a recipient of a merit-based research assistantship, funded by GO-MAP, in her first year. But while GO-MAP’s financial support is part of what makes the program important, it’s not the only reason, she says.

The GO-MAP staff recognizes “how difficult it is (for people of color) to stay on a very white campus,” she says. They provide a network of support, and spaces where students of color know they’ll be in contact with other students who can relate to similar experiences of aggression and racism on- and off-campus.

For alma, spending time at a GO-MAP event or just dropping by their office is a powerful reminder that “there are other people who believe my success is theirs and vice versa,” she says. “A milestone achieved by […] a graduate student of color is a success to the communities of people of color on campus.”

Beyond providing a physical space for students of color to gather, alma says GO-MAP is essential for “celebrating the successes of students and faculty of color. So infrequently do we hear about (those successes), and GO-MAP makes that central.”

*GO-MAP was the name of a program that is now called GSEE, the Office of Graduate Student Equity & Excellence. Learn more.