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Chico State

Disability Rights Leader to be Celebrated with Honorary Doctorate

A view of Kendall Hall at Chico State
Jason Halley / University Photographer

An early morning view of the Kendall Hall on Friday, March 27, 2020 in Chico, Calif. (Jason Halley/University Photographer/CSU, Chico)

Fresh out of college with her psychology degree, Sheikha Jameela bint Mohammed Al-Qasimi still remembers sitting in her first board of directors meeting for Sharjah City for Humanitarian Services as one of its new clinical psychologists.

When she was asked her impression afterward, she expressed concerns that the social services organization was not doing all it could to ensure its clients with disabilities had the best services possible. She also questioned why it wasn’t serving more children within the United Arab Emirates, as most clients were from neighboring countries.

In return, Sheikha Jameela (Psychology, ’83) was appointed the nonprofit’s new director. She was 23 years old.

“That was the biggest experience for me,” she said. “I had to learn everything from scratch—finances, public relations, secretarial work, fundraising. And more about disabilities. I had a book on special education from my time at Chico State that I continued referencing.”

Sheikha Jameela began writing to and visiting organizations around the world, trying to learn all she could. Today, as the chairperson of Sharjah City for Humanitarian Services (SCHS), Sheikha Jameela has established international best practices in helping people with disabilities achieve their economic and social independence, and created greater societal support and inclusion.

In the last 40 years, she has worked with her team at SCHS to create leading programs serving children with deafness and hearing issues, autism, and other cognitive and developmental disabilities. Some of her visionary work includes the use of music and art therapy, offering athletics and recreation services, and securing college scholarships to ensure equitable access to education.

“Words cannot describe how rewarding it is when you can see even the smallest progress in a child, a word they can say or a movement they can make,” she said. “The people and the parents, they made me who I am.”

In recognition of her commitment to equity and empowerment, innovative humanitarian efforts, and incredible advocacy, the Board of Trustees of the California State University and Chico State will award Sheikha Jameela an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters (LHD) degree during the 2022 Commencement ceremony on Wednesday, May 18.

“In 2018, I was humbled to witness the difference Sheikha Jameela is making firsthand during a visit to Sharjah City where she not only welcomed us but spoke at length about how we could partner to educate the next generation of students to carry this cause forward,” said President Gayle Hutchinson. “Her cutting-edge ideas and personal commitment honor Chico State’s strategic priority of equity, diversity, and inclusion, and we are humbled to call her one of our own.”

Sheikha Jameela looks forward to returning for a visit to her alma mater, where she said her passion to serve those with disabilities took root decades ago. As a teenager growing up in the UAE, she wanted to study medicine and knew she had to go to the United States to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor.

Her father, who had been deeply supportive of letting his young daughter leave all that was familiar to pursue an education in a country and culture thousands of miles from home, passed away months before she graduated high school. With support from her brother, who was already studying in the United States, she flew to California to attend the University of San Francisco.

Over the next few years, her semesters at school were intermittent because each time she returned home to the UAE, her family hesitated to let her leave again. Eventually, she was allowed to return if she lived with her cousin, Sheikha Lubna Bint Khalid Al Qasimi, who was enrolled in the best computer science program in the nation—at Chico State.

“I told myself, ‘A bend in the road is not the end of the road,’” she said. “I totally changed direction.”

A clinician and child work together in a playroom.
Sharjah City for Humanitarian Services now serves more than 2,500 children and their families every year.

Sheikha Jameela declared a major in psychology and immersed herself in classes focused on behavior and biology. An introvert, she surrounded herself with other international students from the Middle East, spent countless hours in Meriam Library, and studied at Selvester’s Café-by-the-Creek. While her time at Chico State was short, it was deeply impactful and would shape the rest of her life, she said.

Her motivation has always been to empower individuals with disabilities by offering good education, assistive technologies, and the latest therapies, and advocating for their comprehensive rights to support their self-confidence and ensure they are respected and listened to. When she first started at the nonprofit, it only had a School for the Deaf, but she knew there was much greater demand.

“A lot of families started coming with cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities, physical and visual disabilities. All these parents, they didn’t know where to take their children or what to do. Some children with severe disabilities were tied up in the house or yard because parents didn’t know how to handle them,” she said.

She began expanding services, including physical therapy, a kindergarten for children who are deaf, and university-level services, as well as programs to educate families so they can provide better home care and education. She also worked with families in Cairo, Egypt, to establish an early intervention center for at-risk children, noting that with early intervention up to 50 percent of the children they serve may not need special services or therapies later in life.

Sharjah City for Humanitarian Services has grown from serving 40–60 children a year at the time Sheikha Jameela took it over to nearly 2,500 today. She expects to double its capacity within 10 years. Its services are full and the waiting list is long, but with the same tenacity and determination that she advocated for during her own education so many years ago, she works every day to find ways to accommodate more families and more children.

She remains a steadfast advocate for inclusion, looking toward a day when people with disabilities are fully integrated into nonspecialized programs and eventually eliminating the need for the organization’s schools.

“We are building a huge center right now, and every time we plan one of the buildings, I’m thinking, ‘What can we do with this if all our students are included in schools and don’t have to come here on a daily basis?’” she said. “The community is not ready, and the schools are not ready, but we see potential. These students are no different than others but they have been excluded and we are trying to put them back. They will learn more, they will flourish more, and students who do not have disabilities will also learn a lot.”

A young child clasps her hands in joy as she plays with a game.
Using innovative approaches such as music and art therapy has been foundational to improving the skills and abilities of the children SCHS serves.

Among her many memberships and affiliations, Sheikha Jameela is a founding member of the Board of Trustees for the Arab Network for Autism, Inclusion International-MENA Region, and the Arabian Gulf Autism League. Awards recognizing her groundbreaking advocacy include the Gulf Cooperation Council Award of Humanitarian Work, the United Nations Development Program UAE Accolade for Distinguished Achievements in Humanitarian Services, and an Award of Merit from the UAE Red Crescent in recognition of her efforts on local and regional levels.

“We are proud of the wide-ranging and worldwide efforts that Sheikha Jameela has engaged in on behalf of people with disabilities, and gratified that her training as a graduate from our Department of Psychology helped prepare her for this important work,” said Eddie Vela, Dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences (BSS). “Her proactive commitment to helping citizens with disabilities around the world receive services that help them thrive and live a fulfilling life represents the highest ideals of the California State University system.”

In 2010, BSS named her a Distinguished Alumna, its highest honor. The following year, Sheikha Jameela invited a group of students and faculty from the University’s Adapted Physical Education Program to assist in a camp for individuals with disabilities, serving campers from ages 12 to 16 years old. Students described the experience as “life-changing” and said the kindness, friendship, and overall experience were a highlight of their educational careers.

She remains a member of the University’s Middle Eastern Alumni Network. This year, she made a generous gift to support our Clinic of Communication Disorders so that our students can carry out their work to a cause that is dear to her heart, providing specialized care to those with disabilities.

Sheikha Jameela admits the emotional and physical labor of her role can be significant, as well as the professional pressures. She has struggled with depression and anxiety, and realized that she has to take care of herself to ensure she can keep doing the work. As she began to implement more self-care into her own life, she strongly encourages it among her staff and launched several initiatives for their emotional and psychological support.

She encourages today’s students to hold steadfast to their dreams, to not shy away from stepping outside their comfort zones, and to take care of themselves along the way.

“I made a lot of mistakes along the way, but I learned a lot also,” she said. “If you want to do something, nothing will stop you. I always follow my instincts.”

Sheikha Jameela is Chico State’s 22nd honorary degree recipient in the University’s 135-year history. As such, she joins an elite list of just over 500 honorary degree recipients across the CSU system, as the system recognizes those who have demonstrated excellence in areas that benefit CSU campuses, the state, nation, world, or humanity. The CSU awarded its first honorary degree to then-President John F. Kennedy in June 1963 at San Diego State University.

Other influential Chico State awardees are:

  • Sterling Mattoon, Doctor of Science, 2019
  • Debra A. Cannon, Doctor of Humane Letters, 2019
  • Dennis Murphy, Doctor of Humane Letters, 2018
  • Doug Guerrero, Doctor of Humane Letters, 2017
  • Wendell J. Lundberg, Doctor of Science, 2013
  • Sandra Lerner, Doctor of Science, 2012
  • Edward Rollins, Doctor of Humane Letters, 2012
  • David C. Favor, Doctor of Humane Letters, 2010
  • Sheikha Lubna Bint Khalid Al Qasimi, Doctor of Science, 2009
  • Ken Grossman, Doctor of Humane Letters, 2008
  • Marilyn Wade Warrens, Doctor of Fine Arts, 2008
  • Jack L. Rawlins, Doctor of Science, 2007
  • Rafael Sanchez, Doctor of Humane Letters, 2007
  • Floyd English, Doctor of Science, 2005
  • Marshall Lloyd Ginter, Doctor of Science, 2004
  • Glen Toney, Doctor of Humane Letters, 2004
  • Steve G. Nettleton, Doctor of Humane Letters, 2003
  • Judy Lynn Sitton, Doctor of Humane Letters, 2003
  • Savio L.Y. Woo, Doctor of Science, 1998
  • Ernest L. Boyer, Doctor of Humane Letters, 1988
  • John F. O’Connell, Doctor of Humane Letters, 1985