Youcef Bennour quietly worked his way through the crowd assembled inside the Keystone Building. He approached a staff member and whispered something in her ear. She nodded and handed him an umbrella. Bennour walked down the stairs and went outside. He opened the umbrella and held it over the Air Force bugler standing unshielded in the cold February rain.
Bennour had come to Keystone to honor the life of fellow student Robert James Downey Jr. who passed away in January. Bennour stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the bugler for most of the ceremony. This unprompted act of kindness is part of Bennour’s personality and is born of his life experience.
Bennour was born in Bellevue, the son of Algerian immigrants. His father taught math at UW in Seattle while his mother stayed at home to raise a growing family. Life changed on September 11, 2001. Youcef was six years old at the time of the terrorist attacks. He and the rest of his family are Muslim. Bennour says his parents felt uncomfortable and ultimately decided it would be best to move back to Algeria.
Bennour spent the next eight years in Algeria. He welcomed the chance to build relationships with members of his extended family and immerse himself in the culture. However, Bennour’s parents—both trained educators with college degrees—struggled to find work in their field and when they eventually found employment the pay was low.
In 2010, Bennour’s family decided to return to the United States. “My parents believe in education and wanted the best for me and my siblings,” he said. A series of strikes within the Algerian school system caused Bennour to miss valuable class time and reinforced the choice to move.
The transition back to American life proved difficult. Bennour and his family spent the first few days living on the street before moving in with an uncle. The family, which included Youcef, his parents and three siblings, crammed into their uncle’s modest two-bedroom, one-bathroom home.
Around that time Bennour started at Federal Way High School. He credits his experience there with helping him become who he is today. Bennour, a native English speaker, had lost most of the language and had to relearn it. “The process was tough but it made me want to work that much harder,” he said. Bennour also speaks French, Arabic and the Algerian tribal dialect Berber.
Something else about his high school experience had a significant impact on Bennour. He says he felt at home in Federal Way because of the diverse population. That feeling of belonging directed his thinking when it came time to pick a college. “When I first came to UW Tacoma, it reminded me a lot of Federal Way,” he said. “I felt connected.”
Bennour is a currently a junior and is double-majoring in computer engineering and mathematics. He chose these fields because he likes to solve problems. His career goal is to work for a technology company. Bennour cites Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft and later the Gates Foundation, as one of his inspirations. “He [Gates] was able to transform the world and help make it a better place and that resonates with me.”
Bennour is committed to giving back. He’s active on campus and in the community. Here at UW Tacoma he serves as the president of the Muslim Student Association. He’s also chair of the Student Activities Fee Committee.
Bennour wants to use his experience to help others. “Opportunity can change a life and it changed mine through education,” he says. Bennour is interested in helping young people in the U.S. and Algeria learn math. He still has strong familial ties to Algeria, a bond that tugs at him from time to time. “My cousin and I grew up together,” he said. “He wants the same things I want but he lives in a country that doesn’t prioritize education.”
As the oldest of four siblings, Bennour feels a responsibility to his brother and sisters. “I want to carry on with what my parents started,” he said. “It’s tough, but at the same time I feel blessed. I get to see my siblings grow and start to figure out what they love and what they want to do.”
John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or firstname.lastname@example.org