The Art of Translation: Rukhsar Sadat, ‘21, Fairhaven College, Law, Diversity, and Justice

by Frances Badgett


Rukhsar Sadat was born in Afghanistan, a country torn apart by war due to Western imperialism. Her Shia Muslim family was persecuted by the Taliban and victimized by a war waged over decades. Her mother, suffering from trauma and determined to give her seven children an education and a brighter future, made the courageous decision to leave Afghanistan in 2001.

“My mother settled into the back of a pickup truck in Kabul with as many of us as she could hold. I was still outside. My uncle yelled, ‘Don’t forget Rukhsar!’ and handed me to her,” said the Western senior. “I was two years old. My life would be so different if I had been left there.”

As a young woman, Rukhsar remembers bits of her time in the Middle East and takes nothing for granted. She is a devoted daughter, caretaker, volunteer, and student.

When she learned that she had earned the Vernon Damani “Dr. J” Johnson Scholarship, the political science and Fairhaven student, called Dr. Johnson right away.

“He has done incredible things in our community that I’m inspired by,” said Rukhsar. “I took his political science 347 course on race, politics, and public policy. After lectures, I often had questions for him. I saw him at the Human Rights Conference and various social justice gatherings, and we always spoke. He’s an amazing leader.”

The Johnson Scholarship recognizes a student of color who is active in social justice, on campus and in the community, and who maintains an excellent G.P.A. and demonstrates financial need.

It’s now been 20 years since Rukhsar and her family entered the U.S. After spending several months in a refugee camp in Pakistan, the Sadats were accepted for asylum and initially settled in Michigan. Disciplined and dedicated, Rukhsar took school seriously, knowing from an early age that her parents would depend on her, and that their expectations were immense. From the time she became fluent in English as a first grade student, she began her journey as a translator, family caretaker, and serious scholar.

During her freshman year of high school, when her mother suffered a workplace injury, Rukhsar assumed even greater responsibility for her family, helping with forms, claims, and medical appointments. By this time, she was used to managing such responsibilities. Rukhsar had been helping her parents her entire life. 

“The moment I learned English I became an adult,” said Rukhsar. 

Rukhsar attended Whatcom Community College as a Running Start student and then the University of Washington with a career path in medicine in mind. But she changed her mind, and chose to transfer to Western. She also made a change from medicine to social justice, politics, and law.

“Something wasn’t resonating for me at the UW. I wanted a more hands-on, personal experience. I looked into Fairhaven and the Law, Diversity, and Justice program and decided that was for me,” she said.

She now lives in Ferndale, where she isn’t just the translator for her ailing parents—navigating medical appointments, citizenship documents, and translating important letters—but for the small Afghan community in Whatcom County.

“My family and I speak a  language that is not often spoken by translators because of different dialects, so I’m serving our community as well as my family. It’s a full-time job on top of schoolwork and the jobs I need to stay in school,” she said.

In addition to helping her family and community, holding down excellent grades, and preparing for a career in law, Rukhsar is also very active in her work with local nonprofits and campus clubs.

“The Ethnic Student Center is the perfect hub to meet other students and get involved, and it’s the perfect center for students of multicultural backgrounds to meet as a social networking opportunity and to grow the BIPOC community at Western. We had planned the first WWU Ramadan banquet this year, but COVID happened,” she said.

There are times at Western when she has needed extensions, extra flexibility in her schoolwork, and understanding for her unusual home life. A driven student who is deeply achievement-oriented, the pressure to deliver on time with perfect grades can take its toll.

For Rukhsar, allowing for flexibility is part of the work of social justice.

"Professors need to shift their teaching pedagogy in order to accommodate students, especially when students have other responsibilities and commitments outside of academia," she said.

The root of her success is her drive, a drive many immigrant students share.

“The pressure to succeed is the same narrative for every immigrant child. In taking care of my parents, there is so much at stake all the time, and it’s like, ‘What do you negotiate?’ Dr. Johnson understood that well,” she said.

Rukhsar is the first woman in her family to go to college, a particularly meaningful achievement given her birth country, which she refers to as “back home.” She sees herself one day giving back to her home country, sharing a piece of her own experience with girls who were just like her. Inspired by Dr. Johnson’s example, she wants to broaden her experience with a focus on social justice.

“I want to be an attorney and to advocate for families, particularly immigrant families. A law degree would also give me the social and human capital I would need to follow my dream—to build schools for girls back home. A lot of people want to build schools for girls in Afghanistan, but not a lot of people who do are from there, speak the language, and understand how to negotiate,” she said.

When she thinks about graduation, she feels layers of gratitude and responsibility. She’s grateful to people like Dr. Johnson for encouraging her. Being the first woman in. her family to graduate with a college degree also makes her painfully aware of the challenges women of color like her face. She's grateful to Dr. Johnson, political science professor Dr. Juarez, and Fairhaven professor Dr. Lopez for encouraging her.

“This scholarship is meaningful—honoring the legacy of Dr. Johnson, funding my undergrad journey, and allowing me to address my parents’ concerns,” said Rukhsar. “Dr. Johnson is an amazing professor and community member. We started a conversation when I was in his political science class, and we had so many little random interactions, and it’s amazing it led to this. I look forward to continuing those conversations for the rest of my time at Western and throughout my career. I feel so honored. This scholarship is a tremendous achievement, and it’s all a part of his legacy.”

Rukhsar’s legacy will be the beautiful way she keeps her focus on social justice, both her Shia and Afghan identities, immigrant identity, and her sense of “home” while weaving together responsibility to her family, service to her community, academic achievement, and a career in law and advocacy.