Middle East Studies Stirs University of Chicago-Bound Student

When Salma Abdulkader enrolled in an introductory international relations course her first year at Dominican University of California, she didn’t realize at the time that this would be one of those life-changing moments.

After the course, Salma declared political science as her major and international relations as a minor and became inspired to pursue a career in academia, focused on the Middle East and North Africa. This fall, Salma will further her studies at the University of Chicago’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

“I actually came to Dominican undeclared with the intent to declare psychology. But on a whim I decided to take `Introduction to International Relations’ with Dr. Gigi Gokcek and was inspired to pursue political science,” Salma recalls.

This was exactly the experience she had been hoping for when selecting a university. Having attended a large high school, Salma knew that she wanted the benefits of a smaller college. 

“I was really looking for a smaller university that was invested in community and diversity building.”

At Dominican, Salma quickly found a community that nurtured her growing passion for political science, history, and international relations. She credits her faculty advisor Alison Howard and thesis advisor Dr. Gokcek for their support and encouragement both during her undergraduate years and beyond.

“I took many of Alison's courses as a political science major, courses that gave me a great introduction and foundation for this area of study,” Salma says. “I worked closely with Gigi when writing my thesis my senior year. When applying to graduate school I actually reached out to both of them to get some insight about applying to schools and future career plans; they have both been such a huge source of support.”

Salma also jumped into campus life, joining student clubs and taking on leadership roles. She served as a Sophomore Senator on the Associated Students of Dominican University (ASDU), the Muslim Student Association, and the Department of Political Science Association (DPSA).

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“I really enjoyed my time being so involved in campus and being a part of this small community. I gained a lot of organizational skills and community building experience that were really helpful upon entering the workforce and working at various nonprofits.”

Her junior year, Salma immersed herself in Middle Eastern politics while studying abroad through Global Learning at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco where she researched the effects of colonialism on democratization in the Middle East and North Africa. This work became the focus of her senior thesis at Dominican.

“My major in political science gave me a great foundation of theory and history that assisted me in understanding the politics of that particular region of the world,” she notes.

Dr. Gokcek says that Salma’s interest in the Middle East was obvious from the very beginning.

“I recall she gave one of the best oral presentations on her paper comparing Egypt and Tunisia in the aftermath of the Arab Spring,” says Dr. Gokcek, now Dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Education. “Later in her senior year she produced an excellent thesis researching the impact of colonialism on the long-term democratic process in the Middle East.” 

Salma also gained workplace skills and knowledge while an intern with both the Marin County Bar Association and the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian nonprofit. This work prepared Salma for her first job after graduation, working as a paralegal for immigration attorneys.

Salma currently works at the Islamic Scholarship Fund, a nonprofit that aims to improve American Muslim representation by offering scholarships, internships, fellowships, and grants to American Muslim students entering the fields of public policy, law, film, and media.

At the University of Chicago, Salma will study postcolonial theory and the impact of colonialism on the modern day Arab world with the goal of finding long-term sustainable solutions to issues in the region.

Dr. Gokcek is excited to see where Salma’s journey continues.

“Given that I teach a course on the Politics of the Middle East, I learned as much from Salma's research as I had from the work of others,” Dr. Gokcek says. “I am very excited for her to continue studying the Middle East in the graduate program at the University of Chicago.”

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