5 December, 2018
Growing up in Syria, Nadia Katbi never imagined she’d be the Homecoming Queen at an American college.
“I didn’t understand what a Homecoming Queen was,” she said. “I was just told to dress up and show up at the basketball game. So, I bought a pretty dress and told people to vote for me.”
Katbi, 21, was crowned Gadsden State Community College’s Homecoming Queen alongside Michael Morrison of Lineville, who was named Homecoming King, at the homecoming basketball game Nov. 13.
“It was very surprising,” said the Gadsden resident. “I didn’t think I would win. When they called my name, I was so surprised that I didn’t know where to walk to be crowned. My mind went blank.”
The monumental moment is a long way from her days in Damascus, Syria. At 15 years old, she immigrated to the United States in 2012 with her mother, Ibtisam Mubaied, and her brother, Mohammad Katbi. They came at the urging of her uncle, Haytham Mubaied. He had moved to the U.S. over four decades ago after marrying an American and found his way to Etowah County, where he owns several small businesses.
“It just wasn’t safe in Syria anymore,” Katbi said. “My uncle brought us here because it was important to him that we are safe. Syria was a scary place. It wasn’t safe to go to school anymore. He thought it was best to get us out of the country for our safety.”
Before long, Katbi and her family left behind their home and many of their belongings and immigrated to Alabama. She expected what she saw on TV and in the movies – busy, crowded streets and large buildings. But, when she flew into the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport, she saw something different.
“We saw all of these green trees,” she said. “There were trees everywhere. Where are all the tall buildings? This is not what we saw on TV. This was not what we expected, but we love it here.”
Katbi enrolled in the Alabama Language Institute at Gadsden State to learn English, and she started attending Etowah High School as a freshman. Learning a new language was not an easy task.
“The other students in the ninth grade were learning ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and I was learning the alphabet,” she said. “It was very difficult.”
At Etowah High School, she was partnered with Lorrie Bowman, the English learner coordinator at Attalla City Schools. They worked every day on her English skills.
“She came with her little iPad and she’d take me to the library to teach me,” Katbi said. “We couldn’t communicate very well at first so we used Google Translate. It was my best friend for a while.”
As Katbi’s English progressed, Bowman decreased her visits to the high school to twice a week.
“She didn’t want me to have to depend on her,” Katbi said. “She wanted me to stand on my own two feet because I wasn’t going to have her at college.”
Like Bowman, students and faculty were very nice and accommodating as Katbi learned a new language and adjusted to a new culture.
“The students at the high school were friendly from the very first day, and they wanted to talk to me but all I could say was, ‘No English,” she said. “I was the only one to speak Arabic and the only Muslim. At first, I felt alone but everyone was so nice and helped me a lot.”
Now, she has just a hint of an accent when she speaks English.
“I can communicate well but I still have to work at reading and writing,” she said.
After graduating from Etowah High in 2017, Katbi started taking general studies courses at Gadsden State.
“College was like the first day of high school all over again,” she said. “I felt lost and was not sure what to do.”
She was connected to Student Support Services, a federally-funded program that fosters an institutional climate supportive of the success of low-income, first-generation and disabled students at Gadsden State. It made all the difference for Katbi.
“Student Support Services helped me so much,” she said. “I still go there every day with questions. They gave me direction.”
Now, Katbi is immersed in college life. She has maintained a 3.8 GPA and has been on both the President’s List and the Dean’s List. She serves as the president of the TRiO for Success Club and is a member of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, Circle K service organization and Students Without Borders.
The student who learned to speak English just six years ago now tutors others in study skills, math and biology at Gadsden State’s Cardinal Tutoring Center, which is under the direction of one of her mentors, Farrah Hayes.
“Mrs. Hayes has helped me so much,” she said. “She is really supportive. She calls me her Syrian sister.”
With the encouragement and support from her family, friends and instructors, Katbi hopes to one day be accepted into the nursing program.
“I have known since taking health science classes at Etowah High that I wanted to be a nurse,” she said. “In my country, they call nurses ‘angels of mercy.’ I want to be the ‘angel for our future.’ I want to be the angel that helps people so they can have a good future.”
Her own future seems to be getting brighter. She became an American citizen on July 24.
“The citizenship exam was very hard,” she said. “It’s 100 questions, and you have to be good at reading and writing. I had to study a lot to prepare for it.”
On Dec. 10, Katbi is going back to her home country for a month to visit her neighbors and family members. She will be sure to share stories of her achievements, including her crowning moment.
“My mom had tears in my eyes when I won homecoming queen and that told me how proud she is of me,” she said. “I feel like I have finally worked hard enough to make my mom proud. That makes me the happiest of all.”