Fatimah Al Ghafli’s nest of Jayhawks overflows.
Al Ghafli, 53, is a University of Kansas student from Saudi Arabia, a mother of nine and a grandmother of nine. She plans to participate in KU Commencement on Sunday to celebrate earning her second degree from KU, a master’s in math.
“It is hard, but it’s worth it,” she said. “We are a Jayhawk family.”
Al Ghafli’s husband and two of her children also have degrees from KU. Her two youngest children currently attend KU, and the third-youngest recently did.
While members have pursued their KU degrees over roughly a decade, the large family has been split up — in ever-changing configurations, as student visas expire — between Saudi Arabia and Lawrence.
For her children, Al Ghafli is their leader and their inspiration.
“She’s like the dad, the mom, the grandma and the student,” said Fatimah’s youngest child, Bayan Al Ghafli, 17, who graduated early from Free State High School and already is studying at KU. “But she’s stayed strong through it all. She never said, ‘I’m going to give up.’ I’ve never heard my mom say that.”
Back in Saudi Arabia, Fatimah Al Ghafli and her husband are both middle school teachers by profession.
All the family’s KU students have attended the university on full-ride scholarships from the Saudi Arabian government, they said.
The first Jayhawk in the family was husband and father Mansour Al Ghafli, who completed his doctorate in educational technology in 2011.
The following year, in 2012, daughter Eman graduated with a major in respiratory therapy. In 2013, son Salam graduated with a major in petroleum engineering, when Fatimah Al Ghafli also got her undergraduate degree in math.
Son Hassan attended KU for two years before transferring to Washburn University, where he’s now pursuing a degree in physical therapy.
Daughter Ghufran is a sophomore at KU planning to major in pharmacy.
Daughter Bayan plans to major in biology at KU and hopes to eventually go to medical school.
Being a mother and a student at the same time has been one of the biggest challenges while pursuing her KU degrees, Fatimah Al Ghafli said.
When she and her husband started their KU careers, they had more of their children in the home with them, and they were all younger.
Now, Mansour Al Ghafli, the couple’s older children and all of their grandchildren are in Saudi Arabia, more than 24 hours of travel away. Fatimah Al Ghafli still lives in Lawrence with the three youngest children: Hassan, Ghufran and Bayan.
Her secret to success?
She said, in true motherly fashion, it’s being prepared.
“This is a good idea, even for real life,” she said. “I never wait until the last minute.”
She’s always had others counting on her, she said. Even though her husband visits when he can, being prepared is especially important now that she’s the only parent in the household.
Sometimes unexpected things happen, like the time Bayan had to go to the hospital when her mother had an exam looming, or the time Fatimah Al Ghafli herself got sick and ended up hospitalized right before a test.
But instead of waiting until the night before to cram, Al Ghafli had prepared well in advance and took both exams with confidence.
“This is my nature,” she said. “I have to study very hard...I always prepare before.”
Bayan called her mother “the perfect role model.”
Even when driving — Fatimah Al Ghafli got her driver’s license here, as women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, they said — their mother drives slowly and carefully and never answers her cell phone.
Bayan, Ghufran and Hassan said getting her degrees at KU has not been easy for their mother, but they know she’s here in large part for them.
She pushes her children to do their best and meet high standards, and through her own hard work has shown them that reaching a certain age doesn’t mean you can’t continue your education, Bayan said.
The siblings share their mother’s belief that knowledge is “everything,” Ghufran said, a foundation for life that, once you have it, cannot be taken away.
“We try to follow her lead,” Ghufran said. “We try.”
KU Commencement 2017: What you need to know
Roughly 5,000 University of Kansas students are expected to complete degrees this semester, with many participating in KU’s 145th Commencement ceremony Sunday at Memorial Stadium.
At 10:30 a.m., graduates begin the traditional “walk down the Hill” into the stadium, followed by a program and the conferral of degrees by Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little. The ceremony lasts approximately two hours.
Commencement is open to the public. Tickets are not required.
Campus parking lots and garages will all be open and free for the day. However, Memorial Drive, where students line up before the ceremony, will be closed.
Find detailed Commencement information and a live video stream of the ceremony online at commencement.ku.edu.