Faith Makes All Things Possible

USC Dornsife’s Sarrah Shahawy, president of the USC Student Interfaith Council, is valedictorian for Commencement 2011.
ByPamela J. Johnson

During a recent multi-faith celebration on campus, Sarrah Shahawy recited in English and Arabic a verse from the Qur’an emphasizing that in Islam, both genders and all nationalities are considered equal before God.

Oh mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know and cherish one another.

“Any group can highjack religious text to basically further their own views, own desires, own agendas,” Shahawy said. “For me, religion is not inherently a source of hatred and violence. I grew up in a religious family and for me religion and faith are love, hope, tolerance and justice.”


Valedictorian Sarrah Shahawy earned a 4.0 GPA while majoring in biological sciences and French. She’s president of the USC Student Interfaith Council and Ansar Service Partnership, a USC student faith-based community service organization, which helped to organize a Jewish and Muslim day of service on campus. Photo by Dietmar Quistorf.

If you speak with Shahawy, you’ll notice that when talking about religion, she begins most of her sentences with, “For me.” As president of the USC Student Interfaith Council, she wants to be upfront that her views are only her own. One of her guiding axioms is respecting religious differences.

Shahawy’s contributions to the Interfaith Council are one reason she was selected as valedictorian for USC’s 128th commencement on May 13. The graduating senior with majors in biological sciences and French in USC Dornsife has many other accomplishments.

She has a 4.0 GPA. She earned the Emma Josephine Bradley Bovard Award given to graduating students with the highest GPA of all undergraduate women. She is a Renaissance Scholarship prize winner, an academic honor supporting post-baccalaureate study. She won the Phi Beta Kappa Undergraduate Award and is in the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society. She’s been a piano player since 1997 and earned a Certificate of Merit for Piano from the Music Teachers’ Association of California.

She is co-founder and president of the Ansar Service Partnership, a USC student faith-based community service organization, which helped to organize a Jewish and Muslim day of service on campus, inviting a rabbi, and an imam toi to to speak to students.

If she had to boil it down, Shahawy would say her two biggest passions are science and faith — which is why she wants to be a doctor.

“For me, there’s something sacred and spiritual about medicine,” she said. “It’s a sacred profession. It’s a profession that’s at the service of people. The primary goal of medicine is healing.”

Shahawy’s parents are doctors. Her father is a nephrologist focusing on kidney transplants. Her mother is a pediatric endocrinologist serving children with hormone diseases such as diabetes. But hospitals were not like a second home in Shahawy’s upbringing.

“My parents never set me on the path and said, ‘You are going to be a doctor,’ ” she said. “It was never something that was predetermined. It was something that I came to myself.”

Growing up, Shahawy was very close with her grandfather, Hassan Hathout, who died in 2009.  Hathout was born in Egypt as were both of Shahawy’s parents. In Cairo, Hathout was an obstetrician. He went on to practice medicine in England and Scotland before founding a medical school in Kuwait.

“From my grandfather I learned that medicine is a higher calling and is something that is pure,” she said. “It’s at the service of others and it’s healing. These two images stuck with me: the reality and the dream.”

A first-generation Egyptian American, Shahawy was born in Orange, Calif., and raised in Pasadena. She grew up traveling to Cairo each summer to visit extended family. Fluent in Arabic and French, she volunteered at a charity center for liver disease in Cairo last summer. At USC, she conducted bladder cancer research, then worked with Dr. Vaughn Starnes, Hastings Distinguished Professor and Chairman of the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery in the Keck School of Medicine of USC. After shadowing Starnes and other doctors during heart surgeries on babies, Shahawy decided she wanted to be a surgeon.

“I saw four surgeries in one day, the first was on a 3-month-old baby boy,” she recalled. “Watching these surgeons literally repair a broken heart struck me. Watching that first baby being rolled out of the room and knowing that the surgeons basically gave him his life was very powerful.”

In the Fall, Shahawy will attend Harvard Medical School. This summer, she has only one plan, to relax.

“I’m very grateful I was able to have the opportunities I had here at USC,” she said. “There’s such a feeling of openness. The sky’s the limit. Anything I want to pursue I can find here. It’s definitely been a lot of fun. I’m going to miss it when I start medical school in Boston.”

Samantha Ancona, salutatorian

A USC Dornsife student was also selected as salutatorian. Samantha Ancona is from Pasadena, Calif. and majored in biological sciences and oboe performance. She also has been a squad leader for the USC Trojan Marching Band and is a freelance oboe teacher, as well as a volunteer at LAC+USC Medical Center. She was awarded USC’s Emma Josephine Bradley Bovard Award for the highest grade point average for undergraduate women. Ancona will start work immediately in the research lab of Donald Arnold at USC, in preparation for applying to a Ph.D. program in molecular biology.

Several of the 10 graduating seniors to be awarded a $10,000 Renaissance Scholar Prize for excellence in two or more widely-separated subjects are from USC Dornsife.

Cara Bickers, Renaissance Scholar Prize winner

Among them are Cara Bickers who will earn a B.S. in biological sciences with a minor in classics. As a member of the track and field team, Bickers posted personal records of 37 feet, 8 inches in the triple jump (a distance longer than the average-sized school bus) and 18 feet, 7 inches in the long jump. She earned first place in the life sciences division of the 2011 USC Undergraduate Symposium for Scholarly and Creative Work for her research on DNA replication in fission yeast.


Zara Lukens, Rennaissance Scholar Prize winner

Another USC Dornsife Renaissance Scholar Prize winner is Zara Lukens, a cross country and track athlete at USC, who earned a 3.928 GPA with majors in international relations and neuroscience and a minor in Spanish. She was captain of the USC cross country team last fall and in track posted the sixth all-time fastest 10,000-meter run by a Trojan female with a time of 37 minutes, 11.02 seconds.