Malak Kikhia poses for a picture in the lounge area of the Brenau University East Campus in Gainesville, Ga.

Wow! I Did It!

If you use little things – like a couple of kids– to stall your aspirations for a degree, think about Malak Kikhia. This extraordinary Brenau alumna did it with five of ’em.

Malak Kikhia, EWC ’12, encountered a huge roadblock even before she set out on her six-year quest to get a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing. Her five children? Nope. Other family obligations and all those “adult responsibilities”? Not even a speed bump. No, Kikhia’s biggest obstacle was her own inner-voice.

“It took a lot of mental preparation,” Kikhia says, recalling all the pep talks she had to give herself about taking the plunge to enroll in college. “I knew I would be a part-time student because I had five children. I remember calling my sister, Maleha, in Orlando and saying, ‘It’s going to take me six years to graduate. I don’t know if I can do it.’ She said to me, ‘You know what? Those six years are going to go by regardless. Do you want to look back and say I could’ve been done by now or do you want to look back and say I did it?’”

That was 2006. Kikhia reached her destination when she picked up her diploma right on schedule in 2012. She gave her sister a big hug and cried, thanking her for the jump-start of her encouraging words. Now, Kikhia is a gainfully employed nurse with a passion for helping her dialysis patients at the Fresenius Medical Care branch in Acworth, Ga.

“I look back now, and….” she says, searching for the words to finish the thought, “and wow. I did it.”

In a 2008 study for the U.S. Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education, Dr. Peter J. Stokes of the Boston-based research firm Eduventures  reported that about 84 percent of the total number of students enrolled in college classes are adult learners with families and jobs, going to school part-time – a number that is increasing rapidly. Brenau’s strategic plan, for example, sees that segment as the top growth area that it must address in the next decade. Lisa Ruffino, editor of The Washington Post’s CourseAdvisor web publication, wrote recently that women over age 30 have become the fastest-growing student group – many of them having deferred going to college earlier in life to start families.


Not Just Economics

For many, the decision to go to college is at economic. The Bureau of Labor Statistics documented that in 2007 women college graduates age 25 and older earned 82 percent more than women with only a high school diploma earned. However, according to Ruffino, that is only part of the story. “Gaining a personal sense of accomplishment is the number one reason surveyed adult students gave researchers for returning to school,” she says. “Earning a higher income was third on the list…. Sticking with school while also working and taking care of a family is no easy task; to be awarded that college diploma at last is like a gift a mom has given herself. And, it’s a pretty thrilling feeling to know that your kids are as proud of you. Moms who decide to go back to college are powerful role models for their kids, no matter how old those children may be.”

Kikhia, who lives in Alpharetta, Ga., was born in Santa Barbara, Calif., but grew up in Columbia, Mo. Her parents, natives of Benghazi, Libya, immigrated to the United States as students in the 1970s.

She says she struggled to maintain a B average, particularly in pharmacology – keeping track off the medications, what they’re used for, what side-effects may occur and so forth. Ironically, that is by her own description one of her strong suits: anything that involves lots of facts to be memorized like science, economics and social science. She always made A’s, however, in the thing she liked least: writing papers.

She speaks with a quiet confidence about her accomplishments, but her voice warms and softens as the subject involves her family.

She confesses that she has always harbored a fascination for the medical field. “As a child, I had these little kits that had a stethoscope and fake shots. I remember walking around playing with it and using it on my dolls and sisters.”

Although nursing started out as child’s play, incorporating her studies into her real life was anything but.

To make it through her college experience as an adult learner, Kikhia found unique ways to get her work done. Instead of listening to music on the car radio during her hour-long commute to Brenau’s Gainesville campus, she played recordings of classroom lectures and discussions. She incorporated study time into errand time.

“If I had to go to the laundromat, I’d bring my five kids and my books to study,” Kikhia says with a laugh. “Before my youngest started school, we’d go to the (playground) at McDonald’s. She’d play. I’d study.”


Soccer Mom X 5

Malak Kikhia, EWC ’12 with her Children Ahmed, Yousif, Meen, Lena and Lujaine at Her GraduationWhen she started her children ranged in age from 12 to 5. The oldest, Ahmed El-Shami, is 16 now; twins Yousif and Meen El-Shami are 14; Lena El-Shami is 11; and Lujaine El-Shami is 8. They kept her busy enough on their own with school schedules and their soccer activities – they all play soccer – practices twice a week, weekend games and tournaments. “If I had clinicals on those weekends, or was working,” says Kikhia, who is divorced, “I had to coordinate with their dad and other soccer parents. That was not easy.”

Kikhia even sought out secret study locales. Her favorite, it can now be told, was one she found by accident – the clean, well-lighted coffee shop in the bowels of the huge Fry’s Electronics store near her home.

“I happened to walk by, looked over and saw they had this little café inside. The noise level was just perfect – I can’t have a place that’s too quiet. The library was just too quiet, but places like Starbucks were too loud.” For three years, Kikhia happily claimed the same table as her sacred space to study while her children were in school.

“They know me there now,” Kikhia chuckles. “There was this one lady that worked there. If she made smoothies for anyone, she’d bring me samples, saying ‘Here – brain food.’ It was great. The café employees would come over and ask about my family or see how my papers were coming along.”

In addition to this kindness from strangers and encouraging words from her family, Kikhia’s support system extended to her Brenau classmates. They would get together on and off campus for study groups but evolved into something more. “We went through marriages, divorces, births and deaths together,” Kikhia explains. “I probably wouldn’t be the person I am today had it not been for the love and support of my classmates and instructors.”

When Kikhia began her Brenau journey, her children were old enough to understand the challenges their mother faced as an adult learner.

“I’d always wanted to go back and finish school, but I decided to get married and go the mommy route first. I had five children by the time that I was 28.”

However, Kikhia had a great role model to show her that getting a degree still could be done the way she did it. She recalls that, when she was 6 years old, she attended a ceremony in which her own mother, Fatma Misurati, then pregnant with Kikhia’s younger sister, Hana Kikhia wearing her cap and gown when she received a master’s degree in education at the University of Missouri.

Hana, now 31, is a junior at Georgia State University working on an accounting degree. Her advice-giving sister, Maleha Kikhia, 35, is a respiratory therapist living in Orlando, Fla., with her husband and four children. And her baby sister Maali, 24, graduates this year with a pharmacology degree from the University of Benghazi.

Although she says she constantly drilled them on the importance of education, she also stressed an easier route: “‘What does mommy always say?’ I’d ask, and they would answer, ‘Never get married until we finish school.’”

In a sense, Kikhia, they – along with the sister who encouraged her – already have finished the journey with her, sacrificing in their own ways just as she had. When she got her diploma in the ceremony at the Georgia Mountains Center, all the kids were there with her, front and center.

“I wanted them to forever remember that,” she says. “They had to be there.”

2 Responses to “Wow! I Did It!”
  1. Hend E. says:

    What an inspiration for women everywhere who want to accomplish something! So proud of this woman!

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