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Chico State

Molecular Biology Student Turns ‘Beautiful Disasters’ into Lifelong Call to Service

Hikmat Abou Shahla sits on a concrete barrier under a tree, dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt.
(Jason Halley / University Photographer)

Since 2016, approximately 1,600 Wildcats have studied abroad at one of 200 locations across 35 countries. In the opposite flight path, Chico State welcomes over 250 students from 54 nations annually. The following article is one of six student profiles included in ‘Passport to Self Discovery,’ a feature article in Chico Statements, Spring 2023.

  • Name: Hikmat Abou Shahla
  • Traveled from: Beirut, Lebanon
  • Major: Cellular and Molecular Biology
  • Minor: General Chemistry

Hikmat Abou Shahla has experienced a lot of heartbreak in his 21 years. Hailing from Beruit, Lebanon, he first came to Butte County in 2017 with the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program for a year as a high school student. In Oroville, his otherwise great experience was punctuated by the near-failing of the Oroville Dam’s auxiliary spillway, followed by the Camp Fire a year later. 

He came back to Butte County in 2019 to begin his bachelor’s degree at Chico State—only to return to Lebanon in May 2020 when the pandemic rippled across the globe. There, he was shaken by the convergence of COVID-19 and a catastrophic explosion in the nation’s capital that took 218 lives.  

With each of these events, Abou Shahla has thrown himself into public service in ways that belie his youth and experience, performing basic first-aid services after the blast, later providing COVID-19 vaccinations in Beirut, and volunteering as a certified nursing assistant in several Butte County hospitals when he returned to the United States in 2021.  

He calls them “beautiful disasters” which narrowed his focus on becoming a doctor. 

“Yes, they were devastating,” he said. “But they opened up so many opportunities to get involved in our community and get stronger together.”  

Now a graduating senior majoring in cellular and molecular biology and minoring in general chemistry, Abou Shahla can momentarily look back on a storied personal and academic career at Chico State. Between a stacked volunteering resume and club schedule, he has maintained a near-perfect GPA while leading a research project on idiopathic scoliosis and earning the prestigious Study California Scholarship in 2023.  

Stepping back to see all of the organizations he has served—Pre-Med Association, Community Action Volunteers in Education (CAVE), First-Year Leadership Opportunity (FLO), Omicron Theta Epsilon, the Novick Cardiac Alliance, and International Medical Aid-Kenya—the common thread is Abou Shahla’s passion for helping people. This will continue once he moves on to begin his master’s at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Nursing—where he has a full ride scholarship and a white coat with his name on it.  

A lasting achievement for Abou Shahla is founding the Global Student Society, the first international student community on campus. With a very healthy and growing number of students enrolled today, the organization serves as a connector between local and international students, helping facilitate cross -cultural celebrations and meetups, and more.  

“It’s very rewarding to create an organization like a mini home for those people who are struggling just to find their way into calling Chico State home,” Abou Shahla said. “It’s academically challenging to be in a US university. It is culturally challenging to be around people that you don’t know, people who are different from your culture, and it’s also challenging physically to your brain to keep listening to a language that’s not yours. My head hurt from this during my first years.” 

He said that having a sense of community is something that he will take away from Chico State and continue to pay forward to others as his journey continues. “It’s priceless to be a part of a community and feel a sense of belonging,” he said.