Kansas University's 141st commencement ceremony is set to begin at 10:30 a.m. Sunday with graduates' traditional walk down Mount Oread. Read more details here.
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Fatimah Al Ghafli and her son Salam walked into the Kansas University Bookstore last month, heading back to the graduation section.
A woman in charge of cap-and-gown sales approached them and, as Salam tells it, asked, “Who’s graduating?”
“Both,” they said.
It wasn’t what the attendant was expecting to hear, Salam said. But it was appropriate, considering his college experience.
For four years, Salam and Fatimah have driven to campus together from their Lawrence home. They’ve crammed for tests together until late at night. They’ve gone together to professors’ offices. They’ve sat side by side in six different KU classes — always in the front row. And on Sunday, they will walk down the hill to Memorial Stadium and graduate together.
When he walked into his first KU class in the fall of 2009 to see his mother saving a seat next to her in the front row, Salam realized his time in college would be a bit different than that of many students.
But, he says now, he wouldn’t have it any other way. If things had gone differently, he might not have a job lined up as a petroleum engineer for Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company, he said.
“I think it all comes back to my mom,” Salam said.
The Al Ghafli family came to Lawrence from Saudi Arabia in 2005, when Mansour, Fatimah’s husband and Salam’s father, began a KU doctoral program, funded by his home country’s King Abdullah Scholarship program. Fatimah enrolled as an undergraduate in 2008, and three children have followed, each of them also with the help of the Saudi Arabian government.
“We have become a Jayhawk family,” said Mansour, who received a Ph.D. in educational technology from KU two years ago.
By the time Salam was a senior at Lawrence High School, he’d heard his dad sing KU’s praises so much that he did not apply to any other schools. He continued to live in his parents’ house when he started at KU in fall of 2009, riding with them to campus each day.
With overlapping requirements, Salam and Fatimah took six different math classes together early on at KU, including the first class Salam stepped into as a freshman.
Fatimah insisted that he sit by her, right in the front row.
“At first, I felt like it was awkward,” Salam said, “but then I got used to it.”
Atanas Stefanov, a professor of mathematics, taught the Al Ghafli duo in 2010. It was a “make-or-break” sophomore-level math class for engineering majors that some students never make it through, Stefanov said.
Fatimah and Salam, he said, made sure they wouldn’t fall by the wayside. They came in to see him during his office hours — always together — more often than just about anyone else, even asking for extra work.
“They were interested and wanted to learn,” Stefanov said.
The two studied together, competing to complete assignments faster. Salam helped his mom with computer problems. Some days the whole Al Ghafli family would study in the computer labs in Budig Hall on campus, until midnight if midterms or finals were nearing.
And when he knew that his mom would be sitting next to him in class, Salam knew he’d be there on time. And he paid attention.
“You can’t text, because she’s sitting right next to you,” Salam said.
Those hours sitting beside his mom set the course for the rest of his time in school, Salam said. It’s no coincidence, he said, that he’s done well enough to earn a scholarship and a job offer from Saudi Aramco.
As Fatimah puts it, “If you’re used to doing something good from the beginning, it’s hard to leave it.” She says she’s studied harder, too, to set an example for Salam and her other kids.
Salam says he knows many people use college as a time to build some independence, to maybe put a little space between them and their families as they enter young adulthood. But he knows he’s better off for going to school with one or both parents on campus with him, he said.
“It was not how I thought it would be,” Salam said, “but they helped me mature much faster and become much more responsible at a younger age.”
Salam will go back to Saudi Arabia next month to start work, while Fatimah and Mansour will stay in Lawrence for two to three years while she moves on to a master’s degree program in mathematics. Both of them hope to teach at a university when they return to Saudi Arabia.
But for now, on Sunday, Mansour will find a spot to take photos while Fatimah and Salam walk down the hill in their caps and gowns, side by side on campus one last time.