A UK university has held a solo graduation ceremony for just one special PhD student - for the first time in its 177 year history.
International student Rawan Gedeon has just completed a PhD at Liverpool Hope University, conducting ground-breaking research in the fight against cancer.
Rawan hails from Bethlehem, Palestine, and leaves for home later this week.
But she says the journey back to the UK from that troubled region for the official graduation ceremony at the end of September would simply have been too ‘torturous’ for her to undertake.
And so Hope has hosted a one-off graduation just for her - even live-streaming the event so her family back in Palestine could watch on with pride.
The 33-year-old said: “It has been a special day.
“The reason why I can’t come back for the graduation in September is because in Palestine we live under travel restrictions, which have been made even more complicated by Covid-19.
“Our way out of Palestine is through Jordan. On my way home, I have to fly to Amman, in Jordan, and then take a taxi and go to the land borders, going through many metal detectors and checkpoints.
“I complete the Jordanian side first, then take a bus to the Israeli side. And it’s the same process once again. I then take my luggage, get on another bus and go to the Palestinian side. And so, if I was going to come back for the graduation in September, I’d have to do this all over again.
“It’s a terribly exhausting journey, both emotionally and financially. I just couldn’t do it.
“And so I’m very grateful that Hope has arranged for me to receive my certificate in this wonderful ceremony. I’m very thankful. It’s more than I imagined. My family were also very excited that they could watch it, too.”
Rawan’s Computer Science PhD focused on the diagnosis of patients with colon cancer - the fourth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the world.
She used ‘deep learning’ artificial intelligence and sophisticated computer algorithms to analyse scans of patients with the disease, looking at cells, tissues and glands, often detecting very subtle changes.
And by quantifying the data, while studying the patients through their treatment journeys, she was able to perform analysis which predicts survivability rates. That important research could then inform future treatment plans to improve outcomes.
Rawan came to Hope in July 2017 through the British Council-backed Higher Education Scholarships for Palestinians (HESPAL), which forges links between Palestinian and UK universities.
Before arriving in the UK she was a lecturer in Computer Science at Bethlehem University - a role she’s now returning to. She’s also hoping to publish her research in a peer-reviewed journal.
And her return home will also be the first time she’s been back in Palestine for two years.
She adds: “With the Covid pandemic and the social distancing restrictions, I’ve often been on my own here in the UK. So it’s now time to be with my family.
“It’s also been great to see Liverpool Hope University supporting Bethlehem University. I do believe that the connections we make help us to serve our communities better. The experiences I’ve enjoyed at Hope will help to give me a new perspective, and new ideas, in the classroom.
“My time at Hope has also transformed me, I can say. I’m not the same person who came four years ago. I’ll miss Hope, and I’ll miss Liverpool, too.”
Hope’s Professor Bart McGettrick, Chair of the International Board of Regents of Bethlehem University, praised Rawan’s contribution to life on campus.
In a moving speech, he said: “I’m aware Rawan has made a sterling contribution to some of our students, where you’ve shared the reality of the challenges of daily life in Bethlehem and Palestine.
“Some would think that there’s bravery in returning there. But there’s never bravery in returning home. I know that your heart is in Bethlehem. And I know that it’s that courage to continue to educate others there, whatever the challenges and circumstances, that will make you a great teacher.”
Meanwhile Hope’s Vice-Chancellor and Rector Professor Gerald Pillay added: “This is an unusual happening - that we have a graduation for one special person.
“Rawan’s story is an amazing one - of a young academic with many great gifts, who survives the great difficulties placed on her and her community, and the oppression and disadvantage we know her community still faces.
“She then comes to Hope to complete a doctoral study in a complex and difficult area of deep learning, at the cutting edge of modern computer science.
“And I am sure that every success like the one we celebrate says that we can break down these barriers placed on us. Every time one succeeds, the door is open for others. Education is more powerful than governments and more powerful than all the guns in the world.”
You can watch the ceremony for yourself here.