Fadumo Abdirahman is, in her words, “the first to do everything.” The UW Tacoma senior is the oldest of eight children. “There’s a lot of pressure on me but that’s a good thing,” she said. “I feel like it’s helped me stay focused because I know my siblings are watching.”
Abdirahman graduates this spring with a degree in communication but her real passion lies in human-centered design and engineering (HCDE). A friend invited her to a meeting of the National Society of Black Engineers. Abdirahman was a sophomore at the time and deciding on a major. “One of the people at the meeting asked me if I ever considered human-centered design,” she said. “I didn’t even know what it was.”
Courses in HCDE are taught at UW Seattle. Abdirahman made the drive north to take HCDE classes while also fulfilling undergraduate requirements at UW Tacoma. The constant back and forth became too much and she reached out to an advisor. “She told me I could get a master’s in HCDE and that’s the path I plan on pursuing,” said Abdirahman.
“I really love the creativity side of it. I love design and I love accessibility. I love making sure things work for other people. I want to be a voice, have a seat at the table because that’s not an opportunity people from my community generally have.”
Abdirahman got a chance to explore her future profession while at UW Tacoma. She’s currently working on a project to design a robot that can measure stress in teens. Project EMAR is a cross-campus collaboration between UW Tacoma Assistant Professor Emma Rose, UW Research Scientist Elin Björling and UW Assistant Professor Maya Cakmak.
The EMAR project received a $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Part of that funding has been used to host a design challenge involving seven area high schools. Abdirahman has been helping students by providing both feedback and support. “I initially came onboard because representation is very important to me,” she said. “I wanted to be a face and show that I’m a woman of color in STEM because, growing up, I didn’t see anyone that looked like me in STEM education.”
Abdirahman is a natural in the classroom. Part of her chemistry with teens comes from being the oldest and part of it has to do with her point of view. “We’re within the same age range and come from similar backgrounds,” she said. “I remember, one of the first things we did was talk about ourselves and I mentioned my family. This one young woman tells me she is one of seven and from there we got to talking and ended up discussing her interest in STEM.”
This past year at UW Tacoma has been transformative for Abdirahman. During fall quarter she took a class from Senior Lecturer Ellen Moore. “Doctor Moore stepped in and became my mentor,” said Abdirahman. “She helped me through the entire process of applying to grad school, wrote a recommendation for me and helped me build a CV.”
Helping others succeed is important to Abdirahman. In the past she’s worked for an organization that taught engineering concepts to school children through the medium of Legos. Then there’s the work she does with her brothers and sisters. Abdirahman is the go-to guide for questions about everything from how to solve an equation to how to complete a federal financial aid form (known as FAFSA).
Education is important in the Abdirahman family. Fadumo’s mother is working on an associate’s degree from Highline College. Her father earned a bachelor’s while in Somalia and is currently enrolled in the master of education program at Antioch University. The family fled their native Somalia during the mid-1990s to escape that country’s violent civil war. They moved first to Kenya then the United States. They lived in New York for two years before venturing west to Washington. “There is a huge Somali community in Seattle,” said Abdirahman. “My parents had family here so it just made sense.”
Abdirahman won’t be alone when she walks across the Commencement stage in June. There have long been 18 eyes watching her, but this time there will be 18 hands waiting, ready to applaud. “My mom always talks about how proud of me she is,” said Abdirahman. “She’s been working two jobs her whole life just to give us an opportunity and I feel like her hard work is paying off.”
If Abdirahman’s siblings follow their sisters example, then she will be the first of many to earn a college degree.
John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or firstname.lastname@example.org