Born in December 2000, CU Denver Architecture Student Malaak Madhoun does not remember the persecution her parents endured as Palestinian-Lebanese immigrants in the months following 9/11. She does, however, recall consistent verbal bullying in childhood and elementary school, being called “Osama Bin Laden’s daughter,” and confusing associations being made between her family and terrorism. “In school, when talk of 9/11 came up, my teacher would ask if I was uncomfortable, but I had no recollection of 9/11, so it felt odd being asked,” she says.
Other than attending a mosque in Lakewood, her family had no real community in Denver. But her grandmother lived with the family and “kept me interwoven with the Lebanese culture while I was in school simultaneously learning my American culture.” Madhoun says.
The Madhouns moved to Lakewood in 2005, where she excelled in school. “My parents came here with the immigrant mentality that if you keep your head down and do well, you’ll end up succeeding,” she says. “I wanted my parents to be proud of me, and I wanted to be proud of myself, so that’s what I did.”
At age 11, inspired by a computer game, Madhoun decided she wanted to become an architect. “Playing Sims FreePlay and Sims in general, I whiled away the hours building houses and creating families to live in those houses,” she says. “I realized that’s the direction my creativity was driven.”
Although the bullying in school continued, by seventh grade, Madhoun “figured out I needed to be strong and find my voice. I started reaching outside my circle and became more joyful. I found I was able to connect with other people just by being me.”
She attended Bear Creek High School in Lakewood and in junior and senior year, simultaneously took classes in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) program offered by nearby Warren Tech. “We got to connect with engineers and architects and designed office spaces for a company called Syncroness,” she says. “I was able to knock off a full year of college credits.”
Finding a Warm Welcome at CU Denver
“My parents had started in this country from square one and wanted that for me,” Madhoun says. “I knew I would be paying for my own college and thought I would start at a community college and transfer later.”
But her mother urged her to meet with advisors at CU Denver to explore financial aid possibilities. Kyle Danforth, a senior undergrad academic advisor, helped her find scholarships to make a CU Denver education feasible. “Because of his help and kindness, I was able to start as an architecture major in fall 2019,” she says. “I felt immediately welcome. The advisors helped me find the classes I needed to graduate in three years and carve out a path to succeed.”
Madhoun experienced an instant rapport with her peers. “I was able to connect with like-minded students and felt really challenged and supported,” she says. “Instead of being with a specific type of person, I found common ground with people from a multitude of cultures, age groups, and walks of life.”
Learning to Follow and Transcend Design Rules
Along with building systems and structural theories classes, architecture students must complete five rigorous studio classes. “I had heard studios were difficult and that some architecture students end up dropping out, so I was scared at first,” Madhoun admits.
But Mira Woodson, assistant professor and associate chair of architecture, Madhoun’s instructor for a Studio I course, helped her rise to the challenge. “She told me exactly what I needed to do to succeed,” Madhoun says. “She never stopped telling me she believed in me, which motivated me to push hard and unlock challenges. There were rubrics to follow and I wanted to push back. But she encouraged me to break the rules only after you first understood them. This set me up for success. It became my mantra, the idea that once I feel confident in my capability to master something, I can go beyond the rules.”
Despite continuing academic success, Madhoun struggled with insecurity. “One of my biggest challenges has been trying to overcome this imposter syndrome feeling,” she says. “It feels like I shouldn’t be here, that this is someone else’s life I’m living.”
She sought help from CU Denver Counseling Center where she was referred to a therapist. Therapy helped Madhoun bolster her confidence and believe in herself. “My therapist has helped me through so much,” Madhoun says. “I’m planning on continuing with her after I graduate.”
Her final studio class, Studio V with instructor Matt Gines, forced Madhoun to transcend all preconceptions about architectural design and purpose and discover her true calling. “The man can push,” she says, laughing. “When I first came in, I thought ‘this guy is absolutely insane!’ He wanted us to create by making models with our hands rather than using the software I was so familiar with.”
The studio challenged students to develop housing solutions for families displaced by the Marshall Fire on Dec. 30, 2021, by erecting new homes built to withstand or mitigate damage from natural disasters in Boulder County. “He taught me the importance of setting an intention for a design project,” Madhoun says. “When you zero in on and don’t break away from this intention, that’s when truly magnificent things happen.”
Gines credits Madhoun for always rising to challenges presented. “Malaak operates at a very high level of inquisition and critical design thinking,” he says. “She always carries a positive and professional attitude with anything she is tasked with handling. Malaak’s work ethic, dedication, and effort indicates that she will achieve a high level of success in her career and as she continues to pursue her education.”
Building a Better Future for All
Studio V inspired Madhoun to take a year off following graduation in May 2022 to travel the world and explore sustainable housing possibilities. “I want to see what kind of architecture we have and what kind we need,” she says. “Learning from our past mistakes and successes will help me initiate future success as an architect.”
She hopes to consider graduate school programs and ultimately dedicate her career to designing sustainable buildings capable of withstanding natural disasters. “My future depends on the future of this planet and making sure we use resources as efficiently as possible,” she says. “I would like to work in underdeveloped countries assisting in the fight against global warming while finding housing solutions for the unhoused.”
As she contemplates graduation, Madhoun is filled with pride and gratitude. “My parents taught me how to overcome difficulty and be an outstanding Arab American, even when the odds were stacked against me,” she says. “I’m grateful to my professors for helping me really challenge myself and unleash my creativity, and to my friends and siblings for always being there to listen when the times get tough. I wear my hijab boldly as an educated CU student and am ready to be the change I want to see.”