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Willamette welcomes new assistant director of student engagement and leadership

by Jennifer Johnson,

Marwa Al Khamees

Leading a club or organization this year? Meet Marwa Al Khamees.

In a role new to the Office of Student Engagement & Leadership, Al Khamees will oversee all student organizations at Willamette University and coordinate some of its bigger events, including Family Weekend, the fall Activities & Resources Expo and the Bearcat Excellence Awards

She’ll be available to field questions on everything from club finance to affiliation registration management, help student leaders ensure events are created through the lens of accessibility, diversity, equity and inclusion, and serve as the primary advisor to Willamette Events Board (WEB.) 

Supporting over 70 organizations alone is no small task, but as a former student leader who was deeply involved in campus life, she understands its rhythms well. 

At Portland State University, while earning a double major in management and leadership and human resource management, Al Khamees took on various roles that included coordinating orientation, tours and the student ambassador program. The experience was so enjoyable that after an internship with the student development office at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, she realized it was the path she wanted to pursue, she said. 

“I love seeing the confidence and the initiatives that students take in these positions. They get to discover their identity and purpose, not only through academics but supplemental activities they do outside of the classroom,” she said.

After she graduated from PSU in 2019, she earned her master’s of education at Oregon State University in Corvallis then worked at a few higher education organizations before becoming interim associate director of student activities at Willamette in March. She became assistant director in June.  

Creating programming for first generation students and their families is a primary focus of her job. A webinar she’s currently developing will give families a better understanding of their child’s experience and the ways her office supports their transition to college, and a college success workshop she’s working on will provide students tips on time management, selecting a major and other topics. She also plans to launch a translated website to ensure accessibility. 

Al Khamees’ interest in the topic is both professional and personal. Born and raised in Najaf, Iraq, she moved to Portland with her family when she was 14 years old. Her parents attended college in the Middle East but they weren’t familiar with the U.S. education system. Although her situation is not commonly understood as first generation, she identifies as one, she said — the lived experience of students is more diverse than the term dictates as only being the first to receive a college degree.

In addition, she used her graduate portfolio at OSU to link academic theories and research to the stories of historically marginalized voices — particularly that of first generation and Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) — to reveal the stories behind the numbers in research. 

As her job is deeply involved with students and developing their leadership capabilities, Al Khamees is looking forward to meeting people in person and feeling the energy of a busy campus again. College offers a unique setting for students to safely develop their interests and push themselves out of their comfort zone, allowing them to experience things they wouldn’t otherwise, she said. 

“I firmly believe that college is not only an academic growth space, but a place where students can figure out their values and goals,” she said. “I love watching them make a difference on campus and eventually in other people’s lives, and see how those skills translate into their future.”

About Willamette University

Our historic campus next to the State Capitol in Salem houses a renowned residential liberal arts college, and our downtown Portland campus houses the flagship Pacific Northwest College of Art. Professional graduate programs in Portland and Salem include the Northwest's oldest law school, Oregon's top-ranked MBA program, MA and MFA programs in the arts, writing and critical studies, and our Computing and Data Science program.

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