Friday, May 21, 2010

"I wanted more. Much more."

Ahmad Baitalmal with his son, Ameen, at the May reception in the Lewis Alumni Centre.

“Up until I was 9 years old, I weighed the normal weight for my age,” WSU Online student Ahmad Baitalmal wrote in an English 499 paper about growing up in Saudi Arabia.
      “Then one night, my dad came home with dinner. … It didn’t smell like the usual stuff he brought home like lamb gyros, beans, or chicken with rice. This dinner had a logo, and it spelled Hardee’s.
      “Even before he opened the bag, the smell quickly drew the family towards it like a cube of sugar in an ant farm. It smelled different, it spoke to our deepest desires, and we paid attention. … There was just one thing that didn’t satisfy me. I wanted more. Much more.”
      Wanting more wasn’t always unhealthy for Baitalmal, who last year topped the scales at 470. As a child, he wanted an American lifestyle. He watched U.S. Armed Forces TV, had long hair, and listened to Metallica. He studied information systems management, but was frustrated by lack of Internet access in Dhahran. He felt like he wasn’t learning “real usable skills.”
      Despite Internet problems, he chatted with a New Jersey woman named Jemma. In 1995, he sold his car, took a plane to New York, then a bus to New Jersey. More...      He fit right in. “My early exposure to American culture helped me immensely,” he said. “I had no accent. People thought I grew up in New Jersey.”
      Baitalmal “soaked up everything Internet,” married Jemma, and took a job at Microsoft in Redmond, Wash. He’s now the chief product architect at Etelos, where he designs and builds systems for Internet software sales, distribution and licensing.
      He wanted more; he wanted a bachelor’s degree. In March 2007, he enrolled at Bellevue College and used the co-admit program to join WSU Online in April 2009.
      “The strength of WSU’s online program comes from the excellent faculty and the excellent makeup of the curriculum,” he said. “The content of the courses is very relevant, current, and well delivered.”
      Baitalmal will finish his business degree in summer 2010. He maintains a 4.0 GPA, despite his stressful job, heavy course load and being a father to Ameen, 8.
      “My son is trained,” he said. “When he sees my head buried in a book, he knows to stay away. He knows Dad has some homework or finals.”
      Baitalmal wants more than a BA. He wants an MBA. He’s applying to Stanford’s Sloan Fellows, Harvard Business School, and the Berkeley-Columbia Executive MBA program.
      But Baitalmal also wants less. He succeeded once in Saudi Arabia, when he lost 130 pounds on the Atkins Diet. He gained that back in New Jersey on what he calls the “Sicilian Pizza and New York Cheesecake Diet.”
      Last September, he told his doctor that he’d lost 20 pounds during Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. “If you can tolerate hunger,” his doctor said, “I have something for you to try.” The doctor put him on a 500-calorie-a-day diet that includes injections of human chorionic gonadotropin, which some believe to burn fat, despite opposing scientific evidence. Dieters take a five- to 12-week break between 40-day dieting cycles.
      “It was very tough,” Baitalmal said. “During those 40 days, I would wake up hungry, go to work hungry, study hungry, and go to bed hungry, lather, rinse, repeat. I learned to embrace hunger.”
      Like many summer graduates, Baitalmal walked in Pullman’s spring commencement ceremony. By that time, Baitalmal had dropped 100 pounds, getting down to 370 before going on a break and gaining back 30 pounds, which he’s maintained for the past three months.
      “It was really good having to go clothes shopping again,” he said, “and just in time for the May graduation.”

Photo and story by Richard H. Miller/Center for Distance and Professional Education

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