Born in Somalia and raised in Kenya, Ibrahim didn’t speak a word of English when she arrived in the United States six years ago. Eager to immerse herself in the language, she joined the badminton team at her suburban Minneapolis high school.
“I was the only girl who was a different ethnicity, a different religion, a different color,” she says. “I told the other girls, ‘My English is horrible, so I would love your help.’” Her teammates obliged, and within a few years her English had improved so drastically that she became a peer counselor at her school.
Ibrahim’s desire to help others continued at the University of Minnesota. She considered nursing and tried a variety of classes as a freshman, testing her interests and strengths. She found that her backpack contained not only the ability to learn languages (she speaks four—Somali, Swahili, Arabic, and English) but compassion and a strong desire to help others.
“I’m a very social person and I really love interacting with people, working with people, focusing on the community, advocating how to live healthy lifestyles,” she says. In her sophomore year she took a family social science class. “I said, ‘Wow! This is amazing—I want to do this!’”
Ibrahim’s goal is to work with the Somali community focusing on youth, reducing teen pregnancy and divorce rates, and improving family health.
“If people have someone to talk to who talks like them, who is the same race they are, sometimes they feel more comfortable talking,” she says.
After growing up in a refugee camp and the crowded city of Nairobi, Ibrahim thought everybody in her suburban Minnesota high school was rich. Volunteering as a peer counselor and later at a YMCA, she learned to stop making assumptions and get to know people, relying on her natural curiosity.
That curiosity came to the fore when she looked for a summer internship in college. She saw some programs in Africa but wanted to take advantage of her English and learn about a new culture. The Gerald B. and Catherine L. Fischer Study Abroad Scholarship allowed Ibrahim to spend two months in Sydney, Australia, taking classes and working with at-risk youth. She got to visit parliament and also help teen mothers getting ready for college.
“For someone to pay for me to go there—that really motivated me,” she says. “There’s someone out there who really cares about my education.”
When Ibrahim graduates, she’ll be the first in her family to finish both high school and college. She plans to pursue a master’s degree in public health and eventually work with the Somali community and other underserved populations in the Twin Cities.
Adapted from a story by Amy Sitze, University of Minnesota Foundation | Photo by Liz Banfield | July 2012