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The first time that Maamoon Saleh, from Kent, Washington, travelled to Walla Walla—or anywhere on the eastside of the state—was late at night following his senior high school district track meet.

Saleh’s track season was going well. He’d achieved new personal bests, he was being recruited by a division one school and his confidence was high. Saleh also felt good about his college choice. He knew friends at the school, he’d get to run for a NCAA DI program and the tuition was acceptable—but his mom had different plans.

Saleh running during a high school race

As Saleh crossed the finish line of the two-mile race, his last event for the day, his mom was waiting for him. “She told me, ‘we’re going to Whitman College. You have a campus visit tomorrow.’”

Exhausted from a long day of races, all Saleh remembers thinking about was sleeping, but he climbed into the car.

“I don’t know if I was looking for a school like Whitman, but I know that my mom was. My mom knew a lot more about what I needed than I did—she knew I’d do well at a smaller school,” Saleh says.

Saleh woke up the next morning to a busy day of events, planned by Scott Shields, Whitman’s cross-country coach. Saleh joined the team for their Sunday morning long run, followed by brunch in the dining hall.

He was struck by the unique team environment he’d been invited into. “It seemed like everybody not just only knew each other, but were genuinely interested in what everyone was doing—it was such a supportive community,” Saleh remembers.

Shields knew that Saleh was interested in biology, so he set up a meeting for Saleh with Associate Professor of Biology Thomas Knight. “I don’t think I had ever talked to someone with a Ph.D. before. I was so nervous, but he was so approachable. The way he communicated with me, keeping things simple and not abstract, it just really made me feel like I could do that too. When I left Whitman that day, I really saw myself there.”

Making It Happen

Saleh’s mom, Saadia Hamid works primarily in the education sector as a social worker—helping people living in low-income housing attend college. Hamid was familiar with Whitman and knew it was a quality school. Wanting to make Whitman a reality for her son, she reached out to friends who were connected with the school. Everyone was so eager for Saleh to have the opportunity that they set up a yearly scholarship for his education expenses.

When it came time to make his final decision about which college to attend, Hamid sat down with Saleh and told him to think about who he wanted to become. Saleh says she asked: “Do you want to go somewhere you’re comfortable or do you want to go somewhere you’ll learn something, and you’ll be challenged?”

That conversation, Saleh says, in addition to the financial support and his visit to Whitman, solidified his decision.

Saleh and his mom smile for a photo at the cross country team's conference race held in Walla Walla.

At Whitman, the cross-country team quickly became Saleh’s family—daily runs, team dinners, weekend travel to races and fun social events filled his days and made him feel at home.

As the cross-country’s fall season came to an end Saleh’s first year, one of the team captains, Riley Worthington ’18, invited him to go on an Outdoor Program (OP) ski trip. A bit apprehensive, Saleh accepted the invitation.

“I was as unprepared as I could be. I had never really been in the outdoors, so this was a huge experience for me, but I think it helped me understand that you’re not always going to know how to do everything and you’ve got to start somewhere.”

Despite feeling wholly out of his comfort zone, the ski trip was one of Saleh’s best memories from his first year. “There were a lot of moments where I just wanted to leave, but I think I became more resilient and humbler because I realized that it was totally OK to embarrass myself in order to try something new.”

As a cross-country captain, Saleh wanted his teammates to feel comfortable trying new things. He believes a cohesive team depends on everyone feeling like they can be themselves and honest with one another.

Moving Forward With Confidence & Gratitude

The ski trip led to many more outdoor experiences, including Saleh’s first backpacking trip last fall. Juniors Tucker Grinnan and James Klinman and Sophomore Gabe Wasserman joined Saleh on the backpacking trip into the Blue Mountains.

“I’ve never been an outdoorsy person, but I’ve definitely started becoming one, especially this year,” says Saleh who started rock climbing and is a founding member of the new BIPOC Outdoors Club at Whitman. Saleh says that these outdoor experiences and the amazing people he’s been sharing them with, have helped him keep a positive mindset throughout the pandemic.

Saleh and teammates on a backpacking trip in the Blue Mountains

As a Biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology (BBMB) major and sociology minor, Saleh is well-versed in challenging classwork, but his confidence in the sciences doesn’t come from “knowing it all,” instead, it’s the relationships he’s had with his professors, especially with Professor of Chemistry, emeritus, Ruth Russo and Associate Professor of BBMB Jim Russo. “They helped instill my confidence in the sciences and my presence in this field, something I hadn’t experienced before.”

BBMB majors conduct research for their theses during the summer before senior year. Saleh did his thesis research with a lab in the biomedical department at Idaho State University. His research internship with the lab was sponsored by the Whitman Internship Grant, which Saleh says was crucial to securing the research gig. For his thesis, Saleh looked at a specific inhibitor for protein that is upregulated in cancer. He evaluated the acute toxicity of cancerous tissue as opposed to non-cancerous tissue. Saleh has maintained a close relationship with the lab, attending their weekly scientific journal clubs. He’ll also been working on a paper with the lab that is currently in the peer-review process.

Saleh conducting research for his senior BBMB thesis.

When it comes to next steps, Saleh’s accepted a neuroimmunology intern position with the University of Nebraska Medical Center. The program will all him to take graduate classes while working under a research mentor.

Reflecting on the effects of the pandemic on his senior year, Saleh noted that it’s because of the people he’s been with, especially his housemates James Bent, Craig Bruner and Braden Preskenis and his teammates that he’s been able to weather the difficulties.

“It’s been really easy for me to talk with them, to be vulnerable—something that’s been important throughout COVID when we’re all going through so much. There are moments where you need to talk about things, to be forthcoming and say what’s on your mind.”

Saleh has also leaned on his mom throughout the past year.

Saleh and his mother and brothers

“She told me something really important that I’ve taken with me throughout all of this. She said: ‘You have the hard conversations with the people you love because you want to keep them in your life,’ and I think that’s true, especially because I’ve had these people around me this whole time,” says Saleh. From his professors to his housemates and teammates, and especially his mother, Saleh has grown with the support of many.

Saleh never forgets that it was his mother who got him to Whitman.

“It’s amazing, but she’s never said ‘Oh, you’re welcome about the whole Whitman thing’ and she totally could at any point—because if it wasn’t for her, I would have never found Whitman. And now, I can’t even imagine myself having gone anywhere but Whitman,” says Saleh. “Her faith in me has always been the backbone to my success. I don’t know what I would be without her, honestly, she’s incredible.”

Looking to the next generation of Whitties, Saleh hopes they realize the supportive environment that Whitman offers and the personal initiative they’ll learn to take. 

“It’s more about being honest with yourself, what can you do in that moment to change where you’re heading? Whitman will challenge you, but they won’t do it unrealistically. You’ll have the resources to do it,” says Saleh. “I had to take the initiative and say, ‘OK, what resources are at my disposal?’ I learned that it didn’t matter where I started, all that mattered was where I finished.”

Saleh wants to express his gratitude for his brothers Mohsen, Mazen and Hassen and for his dad, Mahmud for their support. He’d also like to thank Steve Clagett, Jeniffer Parker and Claire Dyckman for supporting his education and for introducing him to the Whitman community.

Saleh and his three brothers.