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Mesa student overcomes odds, awarded Rhodes Scholarship

Posted at 4:41 AM, Nov 29, 2018
and last updated 2019-03-07 14:10:27-05

There were nearly 900 applications that came in from around the country. In the end, only 32 students were selected for the prestigious American Rhodes Scholarship.

The scholarship provides gifted students the ability to attend the University of Oxford and continue their education in a Masters or Ph.D. program for free.  

"It's sort of crazy that... [to] associate myself with these things because I never imagine being able to," said one of those 32 students, Rayan Semery-Palumbo, who attended school in Mesa.  

He never thought his upbringing could lead him to study among the best and brightest.

Semery-Palumbo grew up in a neighborhood in the East Valley called Pueblo Bonito.  

He said roughly 95 percent of people who live there live below the poverty line and attend crowded classrooms. 

He was one of them, but his message now to high school students is that education is the key to changing your life for the better. 

Semery-Palumbo and his family moved from Saudi Arabia when he was just four years old.

"So, we moved in early 2001 and shortly after 9/11 happened," Semery-Palumbo explained. "And, of course, a lot of the - I think 17 of the 19 - bombers were of Saudi nationality." 

The discrimination hit his family hard. His father especially, who felt forced to leave. 

"I haven't seen him since...none of us have seen him since," Semery-Palumbo said. 

He then found himself on the wrong path. Semery-Palumbo said he was almost arrested for shoplifting when starting at Mesa High School.

One day, Semery-Palumbo said he discovered an education was his ticket to the future his family had dreamed for him. He now hopes that his story can be an inspiration to other students from similar backgrounds. 

"I think the biggest thing for me was realizing that my education and the things that I cared about could affect people beyond myself and beyond my family," Semery-Palumbo said. "And that really motivated to study hard and try to see a path forward." 

From the teachers at Mesa High School to his current educators at Yale University, he thanks so many of them for helping him turn his life of poverty to a subject he now studies and hopes to fix. 

"I've had so many incredible people show me that there is financial aide existing for students with poor backgrounds," Semery-Palumbo said. "And that you can sort of keep taking these steps and it's definitely just been one step at a time." 

Mesa Public Schools made the following statement about his accomplishment: 

"Rayan Alsemeiry [Semery-Palumbo] is a 2015 graduate of Mesa High School. He was one of the top graduates in his class. While at Mesa High, Rayan served as senior class president, was a member of the Superintendent's Student Advisory Council and dedicated more than 220 hours to mentoring freshmen. He is a exemplary young man who pursues excellence at every turn. Proving that once a Jackrabbit, always a Jackrabbit, Rayan took time over his Thanksgiving break to stop by his former campus. He spoke to students and encouraged them to reach for the stars, and to remind them that aspiring to universities like Yale and Oxford are realistic goals for any student. Our congratulations to Rayan and his family on his incredible accomplishment. He continues to make us proud."