We recently sat down with this year’s Women’s Leadership Award winner, Lena Awwad ’13 and discussed her inspirations, influences and biggest learning experiences at Harvard. Lena is a senior in Winthrop House from the West Bank in Palestine, concentrating in Neurobiology with a secondary in Sociology.
HCWC: What was your first impression of Harvard, when you arrived from the West Bank?
Lena: It was a big change for me. I am used to fighting for my education. Before this experience, education was not something I took for granted. The ease of transportation, getting to class and overall accessibility to education was a huge change.
HCWC: What student groups did you initially get involved with and why?
Lena: I am a pre-med student but I never joined any science related organizations. I joined groups related to human rights because even though I was far from home; I constantly felt the need to raise awareness for my cause. My cause is essentially advocating for peace, justice and equality in Palestine and raising awareness about the situation there. I am mostly involved with the Palestine Solidarity Committee, Harvard Islamic Society, Society for Arab Students, and Harvard Human Rights Advocates.
Interacting with members of the Palestinian Solidarity Committee exposed me to the diversity that this campus has to offer. Many of the members are neither Palestinian nor Muslim. They are students from different backgrounds all working together for one cause that they (and I) are very passionate about.
HCWC: Describe one initiative you were involved with.
Lena: During the fall semester of my senior year I heard from students at my alma mater, the Ramallah Friends School (RFS), that their SAT exams were canceled. I worked with a few RFS alumni and we contacted their testing center and their high school counselor, only to find out that the Israeli Authorities refused to release the exams to the testing center. Two of us decided to publish an op-ed in the Crimson (Israel vs. No. 2 Pencils) to raise awareness and to advocate for those students’ right to take the exam. We received a lot of pushback as our op-ed was published and taken down numerous times. “Israel vs. No. 2 Pencils” eventually went viral, and was brought up at a State Department briefing. Following these events, the exams were released and the testing date was rescheduled.
HCWC: What would you say was your most successful initiative?
Lena: Some people may disagree with this one, but the eviction notices campaign we started this year was in my opinion a huge success. Illegal evictions are a daily occurrence in Palestine and through this campaign, the issue gained a lot of visibility around Harvard and even on international media channels like Al Jazeera.
HCWC: Describe one woman who inspired you the most.
Lena: My mom is my inspiration. The Palestinian uprising started when I was in the 3rd grade and we had to leave school when I was in the 5th grade. Going to work, which was normally ten minutes away, became a 3-hour ordeal, but my mother continued to do so every day. She and my dad were both breadwinners who still went to work despite the barriers. During the first uprising when under Israeli law holding classes at universities became illegal, my mother who was an economics student, still attended underground classes, something I think is really admirable. Now she works as a development officer at the Canadian Representative Office in the West Bank.
HCWC: What would you say was your biggest achievement at Harvard?
Lena: Education and success can come through many different ways. I can’t say I succeeded in everything. But in the course of our advocacy we managed to reach out to a lot of students who normally wouldn’t have ever heard of any of these issues. That was a big achievement for us.
HCWC: Your cause is also very politicized. How have you managed dialogue with groups at Harvard that don’t share your views?
Lena: We did try to reach out to very neutral groups. It has been our goal to talk to such organizations, but in some cases the pushback we received was unexpected. At one point the Palestinian Solidarity Committee was banned from hosting an event at Hillel after people found out about a discussion we planned on having there. The idea of a student group being banned from a Harvard building is absurd. Such things happened years ago with the African American community and even with women. For it to be replicated with a different group of people at a different time makes no sense.
HCWC: What’s next for you?
Lena: I am not a political science or government concentrator, I have been interested in science all throughout. Things that came up in my life forced me to become interested in human rights but my passion will always be science. I will apply to Optometry schools this year but I am planning to take a year off to work with a Non-Government Organization in the West Bank. I want to unite the two areas of science and human rights, because actually they go hand in hand. My dad is a physician and in all the years he has practiced, he has never differentiated between people based on their race, religion, ethnicity or gender. That is what I admire the most and what I will continue to do in my work.