May 16, 2023, GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Sometimes you need to be your own hero.
When Safinaz Karaein enrolled at Grand Rapids Community College in 2019, she already had her hands full. Not only was the then-23-year-old Kentwood woman a wife, a mother to three young children, and a part-time medical assistant, she was also the first member of her family to attend college.
“I had no idea how to sign up for classes or how to even apply to GRCC,” said Kareain, now 27. “Heck, I didn't even know how to find GRCC on the map as I spun in circles around the one-way streets of downtown Grand Rapids.”
But nothing would stop Karaein from earning a college degree. On April 28 — four years after finding her way to GRCC’s campus — she graduated with honors.
“My journey was long, exhausting and magical all at the same time,” said Karaein, who shared her experiences as the featured speaker at GRCC’s Academic Honors Recognition Reception.
The reception recognizes students in the top 5% of their graduating class through Delta Pi Alpha, students completing the Honors Program, and students inducted into Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society of two-year colleges.
The first of three daughters born to immigrants Sana and Mustafa Karaein, she met her future husband, Ammar Hasan, while vacationing with family in their homeland of Jordan. They married when Karaein was 15 years old, but Hasan was forced to remain in Jordan for several more years before emigrating to the U.S. in 2014.
While marriage at 15 is somewhat acceptable in her culture, the young bride faced ridicule and bullying from her peers in Grand Rapids.
“While some kids were working on passing their driver’s test, I was building a marriage and a family. It wasn’t easy, but it was totally worth it,” she said. “It gave me more reasons to be successful and pushed me to find alternative ways to make it.”
With her father working full time to support their family, her mother unfamiliar with the English language or schooling, her husband continents away, and no older siblings or family to help, Karaein relied on herself to make it through homeschool and earned her high school diploma in 2013.
“I needed to be successful for me, my kids and my family,” she said.
After later earning a medical assistant certification, she began working full time at a Grand Rapids-area health center and fell in love with the medical field. For the first time, she felt compelled to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a doctor.
“But at that time, I was a mom of three kiddos and had a full-time job,” she said. “I wasn't a conventional student and really needed somewhere that could accommodate my crazy life schedule.”
That’s when Karaein found GRCC. It was close to home, offered flexible courses and small class sizes at minimal cost.
“I knew it was perfect, so I decided to apply to GRCC that same moment before any doubt could get hold of me,” she said.
Despite the challenges, Karaein excelled in college and carried a 4.0 GPA throughout her academic career. Then COVID-19 struck in early 2020.
“This was by far the worst barrier I had to overcome,” she said. “It felt like an apocalypse. My mother was trapped outside the country, and I was trying to keep my family safe. I had to try and be the teacher and support my kids and my sisters while I fought to teach myself and be my own resource.”
She persevered, though, earning top grades despite changing majors from pre-medicine to chemistry to nursing. Through it all, her husband, children, extended family and GRCC professors were by her side.
“These professors understand that everyone is fighting their own battles, and they care and worry about their students as if they were their kids,” she said. “Their experiences and knowledge rub off on you and you find yourself wanting more and pursuing more.”
Now with an associate degree and her children ages 11, 10 and 5, Karaein is still deciding what’s next. She’s been accepted to Grand Valley State University but can’t apply to nursing school until January. She hasn’t given up on her dream of becoming a doctor.
“I wouldn’t graduate until my kids were going to college themselves and I’m just not sure I want to miss all that time with them,” she said. “For now, all I can really wish for is an adventure that can match the one I experienced at GRCC.”
This story was reported by Beth McKenna.