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Commencement spotlight: From uncertain future to clinical doctorate, a three-time Badger shares her story

May 8, 2023 By Doug Erickson
Yasmeena Ougayour stands outside the School of Education, a sandstone building with white columns and red doors. She is smiling to the camera and holding a red diploma folio with the University of Wisconsin–Madison seal and the words "Wisconsin University of Wisconsin–Madison."

Yasmeena Ougayour, who credits her parents for instilling in her the desire and the skills to pursue higher education, will earn her third diploma from the University of Wisconsin–Madison this May. As she prepares to begin her career in the public sector as an occupational therapist, she says, “UW–Madison helped me build confidence when I didn’t see it in myself. I hope anyone going into their freshman year can see my story and think ‘I can do that, too.’” Photo: Bryce Richter

A decade ago, Yasmeena Ougayour was a high school senior very unsure of her future. She wanted to attend the University of Wisconsin–Madison, but she didn’t believe she’d get in.

To better her chances, she took the ACT four times.

“I always like to mention that, because I think it shows my determination,” says Ougayour, of Marshfield, Wisconsin. She paid for each new test with the wages she earned waiting tables at a supper club.

Today, Ougayour is a three-time Badger. She earned a bachelor’s degree in rehabilitation psychology from UW in 2018, a master’s degree in occupational therapy in 2020, and now, this May, a clinical doctorate in occupational therapy.

She hopes her story inspires others who might not initially see themselves on a college campus.

“I’m proud to represent a group of low-income, multi-ethnic and first-generation college students,” she says. “When I was a freshman, I did not think I’d ever be getting a doctorate. But you evolve over time. I gained confidence through internships and jobs and all the people on campus who mentored me. What I want to say to others is, ‘Don’t give up on yourself before you have a chance to take advantage of the resources out there that can help you.’”

One of those resources for Ougayour was the Center for Academic Excellence (CAE). The campus center provides an enriching, inclusive community and academic support for students in the College of Letters & Science who historically have been underrepresented in higher education.

“They were my rock and my family throughout my whole undergraduate experience,” Ougayour says. She remembers one instance when, low on money for food, she went to a CAE counselor in tears. The CAE staff helped her access food resources in the community.

“I have so much gratitude for that program.” Ougayour says.

Ougayour stayed connected to CAE throughout her time on campus, serving as a house fellow for two cohorts of students in the center’s Summer Collegiate Experience program.

Ougayour credits her parents for instilling in her the desire and the skills to pursue higher education. Her father, who immigrated to the U.S. from Morocco with limited resources, encouraged intellectual curiosity and routinely initiated lively discussions at the dinner table. Her mother, a full-time caregiver for a family member with cerebral palsy, taught her how to advocate for people with disabilities and to lead with compassion.

While earning her clinical doctorate, Ougayour has been employed with the Madison Metropolitan School District as an occupational therapist. She supports students with disabilities to increase their educational participation and independence. “Advocating for families and direct one-on-one engagement with kids is where I shine,” she says.

For her doctoral degree, Ougayour looked at how the school district can use evidence-based strategies to better support pregnant and parenting youth.

During her time on campus, Ougayour estimates that she worked with hundreds of students through her roles as a house fellow, a mentor and a volunteer for nine consecutive semesters with the university’s Adapted Fitness and Personal Training program.

“No student to date has volunteered more hours in successive semesters in the Adapted Fitness program,” says Tim Gattenby, who led the program for 35 years before retiring in 2021.

He calls Ougayour a born leader who was a gift to him and the program.

“Her genuine care for people is infectious and it brings out the best in everyone,” Gattenby says. “Students, clients, faculty and staff cannot help but rise to another level of ability for having had any type of interaction with Yasmeena.”

Ougayour also is proud that she has led the way for two younger sisters to aspire to UW–Madison. Jamila graduated in 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in genetics and genomics. Nadia is a junior majoring in psychology.

Going forward, Ougayour plans to work in the public sector, which will allow her to qualify for the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. “That will be huge for me, and it’s exactly the kind of work I want to do,” she says.

After 24 semesters at UW–Madison, Ougayour says it will seem odd to no longer be on campus. But the skills she acquired here will stay with her for life, she says.

“UW–Madison helped me build confidence when I didn’t see it in myself,” she says. “I hope anyone going into their freshman year can see my story and think ‘I can do that, too.’”

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