A portrait of Al-Rahim Merali at the Google campus.

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When you grow up in certain neighborhoods in Bellevue, Washington, you get a particular idea of what “success” looks like.

For Al-Rahim Merali ’13, success meant a future in engineering, health or computer science.

As a high school senior and first-generation college student, he applied exclusively to engineering and computer science programs. Then his high school counselor told him to apply to Whitman College — immediately.

“She told me the deadline was approaching, and I should apply, and that we’d talk about it later,” Merali said. So he did, even though he thought Whitman was a ‘reach’ school for him. 

He got into what he considered his dream school — an engineering program in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. But he also got into Whitman, and was a candidate for the Paul Garrett Scholarship, the college’s most prestigious award given to applicants who show exceptional academic and leadership achievements. Whitman flew Merali to Walla Walla, where he got to stay with a current student and learn more about the school and campus life.

“That visit completely altered my perspective,” Merali said. “I eventually turned down my dream school and decided to come to Whitman. I’m a big believer that things happen for a reason and wouldn’t trade my Whitman experience for any other.”

Redefining ‘Success’

Whitman gave Merali the opportunity to re-evaluate his future and redefine what success meant to him. While he was initially drawn to pursue an engineering path via the college’s 3-2 Engineering program, he eventually shifted his pursuit to economics, then biology, and finally psychology.

Despite his feeling that a successful career required a “practical” degree, Merali said he found himself drawn to social sciences.

“The shift from focusing on what was practical rather than what felt right took time. I was going through a transformation where I was so focused on being practical, but I also started feeling increasingly emotionally aware and empathetic,” he said. “I took a psychology class, and I loved it. It was all about how to understand people and their motivations, what drives them.”

Merali graduated from Whitman in 2013 with a degree in psychology and a minor in biology. Today, he’s a user experience (UX) researcher at Google, where he uses qualitative and quantitative research methods to understand the needs, behaviors and experiences of people using Google tools and products. He synthesizes these insights into recommendations to direct design and engineering teams on how to improve the products’ utility and experience.

Using the Network

Merali’s Whitman journey taught him to be open to all experiences.

His current position is actually his third career at Google, Merali said. He began in the company shortly after graduation working in the People Operations department, then moved in 2015 into the People Innovation Lab. He’s been in UX since 2018.

“I found it to be more valuable and purposeful to consider that life is a moving target,” he said. And he has advice for current Whitties with that in mind. “Rather than over-focusing on the outcome and how to get there step-by-step, seek opportunities that interest you, that you can bring passion to, where you can learn and experience growth. Those opportunities will lead you to an unexpected and fulfilling future.”

He found his position at Google relying on Whitman’s alumni network. As a senior, he reached out to alums working in companies and cities he was interested in. One of those was a Google employee.

“He was very gracious and was able to circulate my resume within his network,” Merali said. A few months later, a recruiter at Google reached out.

“I was fortunate to have the alumni network available to start a conversation,” he said. He encourages seniors to look toward alumni in careers that interest them. “The resources exist for everyone, but you do have to take a lot of initiative and carve your own path.”

The Value of Soft Skills

Merali has come to appreciate the liberal arts education approach Whitman offers students, and sees how the opportunities he had — to be a student leader, engage in his community and give back continue to add meaning.

“The Whitman experience is more than just pursuing a major. It’s more than just a means to a career,” Merali said. “It’s about learning, growing and creating experiences that positively impact others.”

As a student, Merali was a resident assistant, student academic advisor, intern for the Admission Office, a DJ for the student radio station, and involved in numerous community activities through the Student Engagement Center. 

At Whitman, he’s grateful to have learned effective and empathetic communication, critical thinking and problem solving. He sees their value in his work and his life, every day. 

“Hard skills are easy to learn,” Merali said. “And you do get those at Whitman, but Whitman did a really good job with those soft skills that are harder to teach — and are sometimes much more valuable.” 

He credits those skills with helping him advance his career. 

“The job I have now, I didn’t know existed when I was at Whitman” he said. “Whitman gave me the confidence to pursue opportunities that I felt underqualified for because I knew I would be challenged and have the runway to learn and grow.''