Biology student once nicknamed ‘Uppercase A’ earns highest GPA in department


Ryan Pini

Rula Al-Anbakey is the only student in the biology department to receive a 4.0 overall.

After moving to the U.S. from Iraq at age 16, a student graduating at the end of the fall 2019 semester with a bachelor’s degree in biology has earned a perfect 4.0 GPA — the only one in the department to do so.

When Rula Al-Anbakey immigrated to the U.S. with her immediate family, she was in an unfamiliar territory, grappling with succeeding with only her family to guide her.

Moving locations is not new to Al-Anbakey. She moved often during her childhood, from Baghdad to northern Iraq and then returned to central Iraq, where the language shifted from Arabic to Kurdish and then back to Arabic.

Now in the U.S., Al-Anbakey is immersed in an English-speaking society. She has been learning English since kindergarten, but she said transitioning to American schooling as a high school senior was rough at the start.

Al-Anbakey said she could have taken an extra school year to get used to living in the U.S., but she didn’t want to fall behind. She kept studying and graduated that year, keeping her all-A grades.

“I was always a very hardworking student since the beginning, so it was very hard on me to see that my levels would probably go down,” she said. “So, I just kept studying the way I used to study back home, and I worked really hard.”

Her difficulties continued when Al-Anbakey learned she missed the window to take the required SAT or ACT test to enter college immediately after high school. Her pathway was derailed, but Al-Anbakey enrolled at Oakland Community College for two years and earned associate degrees in art and science, then transferred to Oakland University.

She said it’s important to know students who are affected educationally by unpredictable factors are not less than other students.

“For students who might have similar situations, who might go to community college because they are forced to, just like me — I had no other option — it’s OK,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that you are not as smart as other students who can start right away at four-year colleges.”

At OU, Al-Anbakey has dedicated her class time to learning concepts and aiming to relate them to her future life. She works in Dr. Douglas Wendell’s genetics lab testing for the presence of New Zealand mudsnail eDNA, and in the past, she was part of a project on phragmites.

Al-Anbakey said she’s lucky to have a family that supports her. She was tutored by her mother while growing up to ensure she comprehended her language courses. Al-Anbakey’s older brother, Mustafa, was a great role model and taught her to make her family proud.

“I’m making the stress on myself and the pressure on myself because I see they are giving me a lot of their time, their money and their lives, so I want to give back to them this way,” she said. “Also because we moved recently all together, and because of the line of difficulties, this is the driving force why I have to keep up and do great — because life is hard and doesn’t get easier.”

Saving time has been crucial for Al-Anbakey, who said she sacrificed much of her free time to study, volunteer and complete community service. She even cut her hair short so the maintenance time could be spent completing work.

Coming from a family of pharmacists, Al-Anbakey will be the first to pursue a different career. Her next step is dentistry school, which she plans to begin next fall. She’s currently an applicant and will soon interview with schools to be considered for admittance.

Between graduation and the start of dentistry school, Al-Anbakey — once nicknamed “Uppercase A” by her childhood classmates for her height and knack for achieving A’s — will finally have the time to enhance her violin skills, practice music, enjoy art, devote time to fitness and relax.

Al-Anbakey said overcoming stress is worthwhile in the end, and she’s happy to have excelled academically.

“If any other person is not having the ‘usual’ college life or student life, that’s fine,” she said. “I’ve been through all of these unusual college experiences, but they are rewarding … There is nothing impossible in this world. Even the word ‘impossible’ can be possible by removing the first two letters.”