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Finding Westminster

Hasib Hussainzada,  Marlene Mercado, and  Dexter Thomas

Westminster is built upon the personal and educational experiences of its community members. Meet three extraordinary individuals whose journeys through education help shape our narrative.

by Autumn Thatcher (MSC ’15)

photography by Michael Kunde

Hasib Hussainzada (’17)

“Westminster is the place…it’s definitely the place to grow up and grow as a person.” -Hasib  

Hasib Hussainzada

Seven years ago, Hasib Hussainzada (’17) packed a single suitcase bigger than he and left the comfort of his home to come to the United States. The second child in a family of seven, Hasib is very close to his family—so close that he would leave Afghanistan at the age of 15 to pursue an education in Utah in order to help change their circumstances.

A first-generation student, Hasib came to the US for the first time in 2009 through Seeds of Peace camp, a program that brings together youth from conflicted areas around the world to sit down and talk about the issues their countries are having. Hasib participated at Seeds of Peace in Maine along with adolescents from other places such as India, Pakistan, Jordan, Egypt, and the United States. It was at this camp that Hasib realized what would become his life’s vision.

“Going to Seeds of Peace camp was a miracle. It’s like a dream for kids from South Asia to come to America. When that happened, after knowing that I had a shot to come here and study and pursue my education, I took that chance,” says Hasib.

When he returned home, Hasib was determined to find a way to pursue his education outside of Afghanistan. He was soon accepted on scholarship to Wasatch Academy in Mount Pleasant, Utah. Though it was hard for him to leave his home behind, Hasib was able to do so by reminding himself of the ultimate goal: to give back to his family.

“Responsibilities are expected from you from an early age. That is a very enriching aspect of my culture,” says Hasib. “At that age, I thought, within a year or two, I will have to do something to show my parents that I am worthy of all the sacrifices they have shown to raise me. To accomplish that goal, I took a chance.”

It would be four years before Hasib returned to visit his home in Afghanistan. Though he and his family members stay in touch via Skype, Hasib has been on his own in the United States. After graduating from Wasatch Academy, Hasib was determined to pursue higher education. A scholarship allowed him to come to Westminster, where he is studying as a communication major. Now in his senior year, Hasib took a semester off to attend boot camp for the US Army Reserve, which enabled him to obtain US citizenship.

At Westminster, Hasib found that the environment was different from what he had grown accustomed to. “At Wasatch Academy, 50 percent of the students were international students from 34 countries. Coming from there to Westminster, even though it’s in the same state, I experienced a little bit of culture shock.”

Despite initial discomfort, Hasib grew into the Westminster community, becoming active on campus as a resident advisor and being involved with the international and spiritual life clubs. He points to the international center and faculty mentors as aspects of Westminster College that have enriched his experience.

“The International Center is amazing. Sara Demko, Allison Vasquez, and Jennifer and Francis have been super-helpful. They have always been resources for international students,” says Hasib.

When examining his classroom experience, Hasib says that it is invaluable. “I love the professors because the interaction between the student and the professor is priceless. You get to see the professor teach the class and afterward have a chance to talk to him or her and get feedback. That is rare I would say.”

As he heads into his last year at Westminster, Hasib has made it a point to immerse himself even deeper into the Westminster experience. “I don’t want to end up looking back and asking myself, ‘Why did I take that for granted, that golden opportunity I had?’ For a kid coming from a war-torn country and fitting in here, finding jobs on campus and being able to interact with professors and students, making friends from all over, for me that is a golden opportunity,” he says.

Hasib’s determination continues to be fueled by the goal of giving his parents a better life. The sacrifices that he makes are always with the forethought that in the end, he will have done something for the greater good of his family. Each class that he takes, every conversation he has with faculty, takes him one step closer to accomplishing that goal. As he prepares for life after college, Hasib works closely with faculty mentors such as Dr. Tamara Stevenson.

“Her advice and the way she gives you advice feel like she is guiding you to all the right moves in order to succeed. What else would a student ask for if there is a professor there who gives you candid comments? It really means a lot to me,” says Hasib.

Reflecting on how far he has come since the day he packed that single suitcase in Afghanistan, Hasib is proud of all he has accomplished. He looks at Westminster as being instrumental in his growth as a person looking to live a meaningful life and inspire change. Hasib hopes to continue his education and eventually work full-time for Seeds of Peace to help bring young kids, hoping for a chance outside of war and conflict, together to discuss ways to build a brighter future. He plans to one day bring his family—namely his younger brother—to join him in the United States.

“Afghanistan is not safe. I want a better future for my little brother. If I have to do the hard work, I will do the hard work so he can have a brighter future. The things my family has been through, that is enough for a couple of lifetimes, let alone one,” says Hasib. For him, Westminster has given him tools and resources to take the next step toward achieving his goal. His golden opportunity has been enough.

“Westminster is the place. It’s not perfect—no school is perfect—but it’s definitely the place to grow up and grow as a person,” says Hasib. “My experience has done enough. It has prepared me to find my way after college. It’s up to me after that to do my best to find that path that takes me to success.”

 Marlene Mercado (’16)

“There’s a wave of change in diversity happening right now and coming.”  -Marlene

 Marlene Mercado

On a warm fall afternoon, Marlene Mercado (’16) returns to Westminster’s campus. Her experience at Westminster was one of breaking down barriers, raising her voice, and looking straight into the face of social injustice. Her return to campus is filled with mixed emotions, but her personal journey has left with it a trail for others in pursuit of activism to walk on.

As she sits down to share her story, Marlene speaks candidly about being interviewed: “My only concern is that I don’t want to be tokenized,” she says.

Marlene is unapologetic about her passions—an attribute that earned her a reputation at Westminster as an advocate and activist. She spoke up in class; she argued with her professors; she protested with fellow students of color. As she spoke out, she grew as an academician, as a writer, and as a researcher.

As a first-generation student, Marlene transferred from Salt Lake Community College after earning her associate’s degree and went on to complete her bachelor’s degree in English at Westminster. Marlene was the first in her family to graduate from high school; and because of this, many of her academic experiences were faced alone, not because her family did not support her, but rather because they were unable to relate to her academic endeavors.

Marlene was born in El Paso, Texas, to parents who emigrated from Juárez, Mexico. She spent the bulk of her childhood and adolescence moving around, and while her location may have changed, her experiences in school remained the same.

“Growing up in an American education system as a Chicana, I experienced a lot of racism—and it was mostly because I spoke Spanish first,” says Marlene.

When she began kindergarten, Marlene was falsely labeled with a learning disability and placed in a special-education classroom because her teachers thought that she couldn’t understand English. She was eventually placed into the general education classroom when her teachers recognized that English as a second language was a barrier rather than a disability.

Middle school was spent in Las Vegas, Nevada, where Marlene was among several other students of color. However, the act of learning was challenging. “There was a lot of literal policing and not a lot of education because there were so many distractions with gang violence and drugs. It was a difficult environment to learn in,” explains Marlene.

High school was not pleasant, but she was not willing to give up. Marlene was determined to graduate early in order to escape the oppressive environment in which she was learning. By the age of 16, she had completed her high school education. It wasn’t until four years later that she considered college.

“No one had talked to me about it: no recruiters found me. Eventually, I decided to give it a shot, and that’s how I went to Salt Lake Community College,” says Marlene.

Four years later, Marlene transferred to Westminster College. She had not considered Westminster as an option, but when she met with the admissions office, she realized that she could make it work. Throughout her time at Westminster, she worked part-time to put herself through school, but this was especially difficult because her upper-level classes at Westminster proved to be more academically challenging than her courses at Salt Lake Community College had prepared her for.

“When I came to Westminster, I realized that I was behind as a junior. I didn’t have any real solid writing skills,” says Marlene. “As an English major that is pretty terrifying.”

Marlene worked hard to catch up to her peers, graduating on time and with a 3.83 GPA. She credits the help of mentors like Fatima Mujcinovic, Sean Desilets, and Chris LeCluyse for providing her with guidance and support to develop as a writer and student.

“They helped me get up to speed to be an amateur scholar,” Marlene says. Her upper-level classes at Westminster also introduced her to Marxism and Feminist theory, which led to diving into supplementary theories.

The more she grew academically, the louder Marlene spoke. She raised her voice in classrooms where she identified only one or two other people of color. She learned how to argue through writing well-crafted research papers, and she rallied with community members to demand better resources for people of color on Westminster’s campus. Coming back to Westminster, Marlene sees the campus’s Center for Diversity and Inclusion as a small victory on her path to social justice.

“I am really happy that it is here now for the students who are coming here. It’s not just this metaphorical space, but a physical space for students from a marginalized background,” says Marlene.

Marlene concluded her time at Westminster by throwing herself into a thesis that discussed incarceration of Chicanas. While she researched, she taught incarcerated women at the Salt Lake County jail in an effort to help them work toward their high school diplomas—and eventually saw many of her students seek out a degree in higher education. Marlene continues to educate women in the Salt Lake County jail while working at Valley Behavioral Health. She takes with her the dedication to de-stigmatize communities of people.

Additionally, Marlene is in the process of applying to graduate school, where she plans to pursue her doctoral degree and continue her research on incarceration. “The obvious goal with a PhD is to be a professor, but also to continue working in communities. I am really interested in the practices of being a professor—not just writing about wanting things to change but being a part of the change that needs to happen,” she says.

As Marlene continues to blaze trails within the academic realm, she encourages others to speak out.

“It’s super scary when you first start speaking out against injustices in your face. If you feel safe and comfortable to make yourself a little vulnerable, it gets easier over time,” says Marlene. “Especially as women of color, you start to get away from the silence that this country imposes on you.”

Though the challenges are still there, Marlene carries an air of hope that she plans to take with her to graduate school and beyond. “There’s a wave of change in diversity happening right now and coming. Change is around the corner.”

 Dexter Thomas (’13)  

“I went on to have a really positive attitude where I didn’t feel like an imposter.” -Dexter

 Dexter Thomas

With a warm smile, Dexter Thomas (’13) reveals that he is in the throes of midterms in his doctoral program at the University of Utah. He jokes about being a little unkempt, though in all reality, he looks perfectly put together. Dexter is studying social psychology on the path to his doctoral degree. He wears his ambition with tired pride, and though sleep is hard to come by these days, Dexter wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Dexter grew up in a trailer park in Rose Park, Utah. Throughout his youth, school was a place of fear, where he was discriminated against and bullied by both his peers and administrators. As an out transgender person, Dexter found that high school offered little in the way of support and equality. Because of this, he dropped out of school and began working.

“I was really anti-academia. I had no intentions of ever going back to school,” says Dexter. “It seems like you’re the one causing the problem because you are the one being bothered. The whole thing is really set up against marginalized youth.”

After leaving high school, Dexter worked as a self-taught web designer and volunteered at the Utah Pride Center and Equality Utah, where he devoted time serving as a transgender mentor. At one point, he reconnected with a woman who, six years prior, had been homeless and seeking help from the Pride Center. When he saw her again, Dexter discovered that she had obtained a master’s degree in social work.

“I was curious how you could go from being lower income and homeless to obtaining a master’s degree and being in a position here where you are able to help homeless youth,” says Dexter. “She encouraged me to go to Salt Lake Community College (SLCC).”

Dexter took her advice and completed his high school GED through SLCC. He began taking higher education classes but did not know how to navigate financial aid.

“I was really confused by financial aid. I hadn’t known anyone who graduated from college, and financial aid services weren’t as accessible in my experience.”

One day, he hopped on his bike to ride up to the University of Utah to inquire about enrollment and financial aid. On his way, Dexter spontaneously stopped by Westminster College.

“I decided to stop  Westminster  and pretend that it was an option because I didn’t think it was accessible. The University of Utah tuition was a lot more expensive than SLCC, but I had the impression that only very wealthy students could attend Westminster. I stopped because I felt like it would make the U look more affordable,” Dexter explains.

He never made it to the U. After stopping in at Westminster, Dexter was immediately introduced to a financial aid officer, who then took him to meet Jo Hinsdale, director of the Ronald E. McNair program.

“The whole objective of the McNair program is to help underrepresented demographics who are undergrads prepare for graduate studies,” says Dexter. “Through Westminster, the program helped to guide things financially and socially.”

Dexter applied for—and was accepted into—the McNair Scholars program. He speaks fondly of his experience at Westminster, pointing to advisors and faculty mentors like Jo Hinsdale, Lesa Ellis, and Jen Simonds, who helped him move through the academic realm in a smooth way.

“When I first came here, I didn’t believe that graduating from college was going to be a realistic outcome,” says Dexter. “Through Westminster supporting McNair as much as it does, it helped me network with other underrepresented students at Westminster and at the University of Utah. We were able to network with and support one another.”

At Westminster, Dexter was welcomed into the campus community by faculty and peers, and did not face the outcasting and marginalization he had experienced in high school.

“I was very skeptical that academia was the route to take. I thought there’s going to be discrimination and problems—I’m going to get weeded out. I felt that way until I came to Westminster College,” says Dexter. “I had no problems at all being an out transgender student. I found other transgender students who were really open and happy. I found faculty who were really supportive and had help finding gender-neutral bathrooms on campus that I could access without worry,” says Dexter. “The ambience is supportive of diversity.”

Dexter credits his experience at Westminster as one that not only helped him afford higher education, but also as one that helped him realize his own potential. “When I came here, my attitude about myself and academia changed through the McNair program. They help you with the sense of imposter syndrome,” says Dexter.

Through the McNair program, Dexter attended workshops where he learned how to eat with an academic at lunch. He learned how to interact with his peers from all walks of life, and he realized that he did in fact belong. “They really work hard from multiple angles to help you feel proud that you’re a nontraditional student—that you are unique and have a lot to offer academia. I went on to have a really positive attitude where I didn’t feel like an imposter,” says Dexter. “The whole perspective shifted to graduate school, and I ended up getting a college degree on the way.”

Dexter continues to represent the transgender community. Most recently, Dexter was named the Sexiest Male Vegan by PETA. His sexy crown came with a free trip to Maui, which he will take his mother on to celebrate her overcoming a battle against cancer.

As he wraps up his third year of graduate school, Dexter plans to mentor others and use his experiences to prove that higher education is possible for anyone, regardless of background. Dexter is focusing his research on resilience and how people cope with negative events and information, including stigma. He is examining underlying health disparities and barriers and wants to help individuals not internalize stigma and feel proud of who they are, an attitude he found to ring true while at Westminster.

“Westminster and the support of the McNair program were really pivotal for me. It made it so I, as an underrepresented student, could really thrive and succeed,” Dexter says. “You can have a difficult background, but it is going to be okay. Be your beautiful, happy self.”



About the Westminster Review

The Westminster Review is Westminster University’s bi-annual alumni magazine that is distributed to alumni and community members. Each issue aims to keep alumni updated on campus current events and highlights the accomplishments of current students, professors, and Westminster alum.