The academic year is over; degrees have been granted and distinction honours have been bestowed.

At the Salaam Youth Awards '08 ceremony, students who were always active and unique but rarely in the spotlight had the chance to celebrate their success with family and friends, for this was the purpose of the competition: to reward students' achievements by showing them their colleagues, families and friends, appreciate their work.

Salaam Awards, an initiative organised by a group of graduates from different universities in the UAE, aims to recognise students who are intelligent, popular, talented and innovative in their own ways. The competition, which started in April, is web-based.

Students enrolled in universities in the UAE, nominated themselves or their friends in one of eight categories: academia, sports, popularity, special needs, entrepreneurship, art, daredevil of the year and professor of the year.

The winners were announced in an awards ceremony held last week at Dubai Knowledge Village.

The competition

Voting was open for around two months; anyone with an online account on the Salaam website could vote for their candidates, and as many times as they wished. In fact, one voter, Mohammad Marashi, actually won a prize for voting 926,626 times.

"It took me a few hours a day for almost a month," Marashi, a senior student at the Dubai-based Rashid School for Boys in Dubai, told Notes. "I did it while surfing the net . . . I voted for my sister the most," he said.

His sister, Sahar Marashi, a Dubai Medical College student won in the Most Popular Student of the Year category. She celebrated her success with her family and friends after collecting 17,421 votes.

The winners

Sabah Agha, business student at Preston University, Ajman, won the Academic Achiever of the Year award, which goes to students with remarkable academic records. "I feel amazing, especially that my friends supported me a lot," she said. Agha is among the top students in her batch.

Sports champion Sahil Sood won the Sports Achiever of the Year award for his outstanding performance in badminton, table tennis and athletics. Sood, an information technology student at Middlesex University, Dubai, said that it was his table tennis coach who nominated him for the award. His friends and family supported him by casting over 5,000 votes.

Jamal Al Falasi, environmental health student at the University of Sharjah, was declared Daredevil of the Year after going on an expedition in Antarctica along with 85 students from around the world.

They spent two weeks trying to learn more about the continent. "It was like we had left Earth and were on a different planet. The icebergs were huge; it was freezing and the sun never sets there," he added. "I have some wonderful memories."

The daredevil category requires boldness, openness and a fun spirit. Al Falasi displayed all those traits when he went on a trip to the ‘unknown South Pole.'

If there was one word to describe the winners, it would be ‘modest'. All of them, accepted the awards and ran back to celebrate with their friends. At the end of the day it was a group effort. Nomination was the first step, but the students would not have done it without the help and dedication of their friends.

Professors have their share, too!

One category was dedicated to professors. "Professors are usually very modest and sometimes not well-appreciated," said Jameel Kasamani, one of the student organisers of the event.

Professor Salah Al Aranaout from Dubai Medical College was announced Professor of the Year after his students gave him 3,900 votes. His students cheered as he accepted his award.

Special needs

The evening shed light on talented students with special needs. Some performed, others received awards recognising their special talents.

After a stage performance by students of the Rashid Pediatric Therapy Centre, it was time to announce the winners.

When the first winner of the Outstanding Special Needs Student of the Year category was announced, Uday Pradeep ran to the stage. He took his award, kissed it and bowed to the audience. The award goes to a student who, despite challenges, overcomes difficulties and excels on a personal and social level.

Pradeep is a 22 year-old student with a special need, who has danced in various shows across the city. He received 175,280 votes and was declared the winner in this category.

"I feel great," he told Notes, as friends and relatives congratulated him. He was smiling for the rest of the night.

Vote, play and win!

The evening included fun games and exciting performances and gave students a chance to relax while listening to music and chatting with their friends. Mushmoom Khan, a student studying medicine at the Universal Empire Institute of Medical Sciences (UEIMS), said that she showed up to encourage her friends who were participating in the shows.

Afshan Pathan said that the highlight was the dance performance by the students with special needs. Muniba Jahangir, also studying medicine at UEIMS, said that the event was a wonderful opportunity for friends to come together and have a good time. As summer draws nearer, this was one of the last gatherings for students and friends.

A special winner

Dana Nashawati is a business administration and Human Resources student at the Canadian University of Dubai and a Customer Relations Services agent at Emirates Airlines Skyward.

Dana has had visual impairment for seven years. In spite of this she says that that was never an obstacle for her.
She was invited to the stage to share her inspirational story with the audience. "I lost my eyesight seven years ago," said Dana, who is now 21.

She said: "I wish I can continue and reach what I want because nothing is impossible in this world."

Speaking to Notes, she said, "In grade 9, I was an A+ student. I lost my vision but I have always thought that this should not stop me from being who I want to be. I studied and graduated with a 91 per cent score from school. During my first day at university, I was scared of rejection by professors or other students, but I have made many friends."

How did Dana overcome the challenge?

"I knew I could excel; if others can, why not me? I want to be something and I have learned how to cook and help out in the housework. Now, I do it all by myself," she said.

Dana relies on her friends; one of them accompanied her to the Salaam Youth Awards ceremony. She said she was very thankful for the recognition at the ceremony. She has great ambitions and nothing, she confirmed, will stop her.