'There are people waiting to encourage you. ... You just have to find them'

Get to know Ashwakh Abdalla, a recent University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate.

Ashwakh Abdalla

This interview is part of the Building a Legacy series by Alysha Carlisle and Mackenzie Rutherford, highlighting Rochester’s youth of color.

Who is Ashwakh Abdalla?

That’s a hard question. I’m still figuring that out. I’m 22 years old and I recently graduated from UW-Madison with a bachelor's degree in neurobiology and psychology and a certificate in global health. I’ll be going back to school to be a dentist.

Describe your college experience.

Straight out of high school I really wanted to go to a four-year university. I wanted the freedom to make my own decisions and start my adult life. My parents really wanted me to stay in Rochester so I stayed and completed a year at RCTC. RCTC felt similar to high school. Most of my friends were there but I also had friends that went straight to four-year universities. I felt like they were having my dream college experience and I wanted that for myself. After I finished at RCTC I knew I didn't want to stay here another year. I started applying to different schools in Wisconsin and Iowa — I just wanted to get out. I knew I didn’t want to be in Rochester but I also knew that I didn’t want to be too far from home.


What was it like trying to pick a university to attend?

Well, it was chaotic. After I finished at RCTC I ended up going to Sudan for three months. That's where my family is originally from. The two schools that I really wanted to go to were the University of Minnesota and UW-Madison. I ended up getting into both! I didn’t think I would get into either of them. I didn’t have internet access when I was in Sudan and missed the deadline to accept their offers. I was like OMG, there goes my only chance. I had to advocate for myself and contact the admissions office and explain my situation. They were very understanding and were willing to work with me. Having to figure things out on my own was hard. I would ask my friends, use Google, and ask Project Legacy for help understanding things. It was really hard because I couldn’t really explain things to my parents in a way that they could understand. It’s hard trying to explain certain things to your foreign parents. They want to understand but they struggle sometimes.

How old were you when your family moved from Sudan to the US?

I came here when I was 9. We came straight from Sudan to Rochester and we’ve been here ever since. There were a lot of cultural differences when we got here. Trying to learn English and adjust to the new environment was hard. I didn’t know any English, I didn’t know anything. I was in this new space and had to relearn everything. I picked up on the language fast and adjusted quickly surprisingly.

What was that experience like for your parents?

It was harder for them. Today they know enough to get around and do what they need to do to be successful but it’ll never be the same, which is why I think they like to go back home to Sudan so often. They want to see their family. Community is important. That will always be their home. I feel like I can now call America my home. I’ve been here for like 12-plus years and got to experience elementary, middle, and high school here and now college. I have great relationships with people and have made great connections. I’ve accomplished more than I ever thought I could.

Besides graduating, what is something that you did this year that you’re proud of?

I made my first "big girl" purchase last month. I bought a new car! I’m really proud of that because I worked really hard and have been saving up for this since I was young. It feels really good.


What's next for you?

So right now I'm taking a gap year and just working and getting some experience in my field. I’m really focused on finding out who I am outside of school. It's always been school, school, school and I really haven't had time to figure out who I am or what I like. That's why when you asked me to tell you about myself I felt like I had nothing to tell. I feel like this is finally the time for me to find out who Ashwakh really is and what she likes to do.

What are some things you’re interested in exploring?

I really like traveling. There's so much out there in this world that I need to see and experience before I die. Traveling gives me peace. I also want to dive into new experiences with my friends. Just going out and doing new things. I want to feel like I'm really living and enjoying life.

Close your eyes and imagine what your life will look like five years from now. What do you see?

I'm going to be Dr. Abdalla. I’ll be living somewhere warm with a nice house. Just content and happy. I want to look back and be able to say that everything I went through was worth it.

You were 9 years old when you came to America. If you could have a conversation with your 9-year-old-self, what would you say to her?

Don’t be scared to try new things. The world and everyone around you will try to pull you in a lot of directions — always be your own person. Be confident in who you are and don’t be scared to have boundaries. Find what you love to do, reach for it, and go get it. I hate hearing the word "no" or being told that I can’t do something. No is not in my vocabulary. If you tell me no, that will just motivate me to try even harder. Don’t be scared to ask for help. You don’t need to figure out everything by yourself. Life is hard. There are going to be so many challenges and obstacles. You just have to be motivated enough to keep going. You have to find new paths when old ones don't work anymore and be open to change. There are so many people that are waiting to encourage you to be everything you want to be. You just have to find them.


Mackenzie Rutherford is a native of Rochester and a graduate of John Marshall High School. She spent her recent years attaining her B.A. at Scripps College in Claremont, California, and her M.S. at SOAS University of London. She is a staff member at Project Legacy and a freelance social media strategist.

Alysha Carlisle is originally from Oakland, California. She graduated with her BSW in 2021 and now serves as a social worker at Project Legacy and a research coordinator at Mayo Clinic.

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