'You just have to be determined'

Saudi student, mother of five, earns PhD in record time

May 10, 2016
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Alaa Al-Ban is the first person in the College of Architecture and Planning to complete her PhD in three years, and she accomplished that feat with honors.

In 2013, Alaa Al-Ban arrived in Denver from Saudi Arabia on the first day of the holy month Ramadan. She was away from home during the most important time of the year, when families get together to celebrate the holy month, and she felt homesick. On her second day in Denver, her mother-in-law passed away unexpectedly in her home country. Then, a month later, four days before she began her CU Denver PhD program, Alaa Al-Ban gave birth to twin daughters Alaa and Aram, born prematurely. They joined two older sisters, Dana, who was in the tenth grade, and Dur, who was in the fifth grade. Al-Ban describes those days as an “emotionally challenging time.”

During those difficult early days in Denver, it would have been hard to imagine that in the spring of 2016, just one month after she had given birth to her fifth daughter Sufana, she would walk across the stage to receive her PhD, and to be the first person in the College of Architecture and Planning (CAP) to complete her PhD in three years—and with honors! It is hard to imagine—until you meet Alaa Al-Ban.

Educating Saudi women

When Al-Ban moved from Jeddah, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with her husband and two older daughters to study in CAP, she already had earned a BA in Interior Design from Dar Al-Hekma University and a terminal degree, the Master of Fine Arts in Graphic Design from the California College of the Arts. Al-Ban had heard about CAP through the Fayez International Exchange Program, created by Zuhair Fayez, founder of the largest architecture, engineering and management firm in Saudi Arabia and a CAP alumnus. She was determined to earn a PhD from a true architecture school to build credibility for her teaching and architectural firm in Jeddah.

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From left, Taisto Mäkelä, PhD, Ann Komara, MLA, Alaa Al-Ban holding computer connected to Dr. Yasser Adas at King Abdulaziz University, Margaret Woodhull, PhD, and Jana Everett, PhD
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Al-Ban’s dissertation defense included a large exhibition designed to educate a Western audience about Saudi architecture.

Al-Ban comes from a family of distinguished Saudi women who believe in education. Her grandmother was a successful businesswoman in Jeddah. Her mother traveled abroad to be educated as a medical doctor. At CU Denver, Al-Ban majored in architecture and minored in gender studies. Her dissertation, “Architecture and Cultural Identity in the Traditional Homes of Jeddah,” focused on the impact of Hijazi culture on domestic architecture in the historic center of Jeddah and considers the relationship between architectural expression and female agency in the final decades of the 19th century.

Al-Ban argued that a traditional Saudi home stands as proof of strong-minded Saudi women. Her research is situated at the intersection of architecture, geography, gender studies and history and seeks to raise awareness that will help shape the future of architectural preservation in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. Ultimately, her work celebrates culture and helps others understand the power culture has on the built form in general and in Jeddah specifically. Even more so, she hopes to foster recognition of solutions that exist when domestic architecture reflects one’s culture and, therefore, one’s needs.

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Visitor to CAP tours Al Ban’s exhibit.

“The architecture of the houses was based on the comfort and needs of women,” she said. “It demonstrated that they were empowered—but according to a non-Western definition of empowerment. It’s not fair to apply Western values to Saudi women.”

Al-Ban worked with five advisors for her degree, including two from CAP, Taisto Mäkelä, PhD, and Ann Komara, MLA; two from the Political Science Department Gender Studies Program in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Margaret Woodhull, PhD, and Jana Everett, PhD, and one from King Abdulaziz University, Dr. Yasser Adas.

About her advisors, Al-Ban said, “My advisors guided my research, helped me focus on my research question and become an expert in the area I was studying.”

Returning to Saudi Arabia

Although Al-Ban and her family have lived in the United States for 10 years, Denver is the first place where she invested in making Western friends. The effort paid off.  “We made amazing friends here,” she said. “That taught us that when you give to others, you receive.”

She will return to Jeddah to teach as an assistant professor and to work in her architectural firm. Her priority, she says, is to be a role model for her daughters, then for her students and finally for all Saudi women. Her example will be one of intellect, focus, determination, optimism and, consistent with her academic studies, female empowerment.

“You can achieve your goal no matter what the obstacles are,” she said. “You just have to be determined and focused on your goals.”