Breaking the ice

Leila Farah, ’15, forged a path from Somalia to Minnesota

Leila Farah’s early years were spent in the competitive urban classrooms of her native Somalia. The educational system was known for its heated atmosphere of high stakes testing, which forced up to half of her classmates out of education by the end of secondary school. Those who made it would be eligible for tuition-free college.

Farah left during high school. At the time, she couldn’t imagine life in Minnesota. But here she has forged many new paths and this year became what may be the University’s first Somali-born student to complete a Ph.D.

“I finish what I start,” says Farah simply. Then she hastens to describe the support she has received from her family, friends, employer, and academic program in comparative and international development education. “This was a place that allowed me to be in a race with myself to continue to grow to become a scholar.”

As a part-time doctoral student juggling school, family, and work, Farah had to keep reminding herself to be strategic with her time and attention. Her career led her several years ago to the Minnesota Department of Human Services while also raising three daughters who are now in college, one embarking on medical school.

“Because I was strapped for time, I found the guidance of my professors encouraging,” says Farah. “I learned habits of mind, to be curious about the why and how of things.” She also learned to recognize when her perfectionism was holding her back. “My adviser would tell me, ‘This is enough,’ or ‘This is too long.’”

From Somalia to Minnesota

Hers has been a long, winding, and sometimes icy road, literally and figuratively. Farah’s family left Somalia after her father’s death, before the Somali civil war. They moved first to Dubai, where she finished high school. She and her younger siblings sought education abroad; Farah was the one who came to the United States, completing her bachelor’s degree in Ohio.

Back in the Middle East, Farah married and started her career in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. But after a few years she was back in the Midwest, this time with her economist husband, who wanted to pursue a graduate degree, and their daughters. They chose Southern Illinois, recommended because of a family-oriented campus. When her husband’s career then took him to jobs in western and northern Africa, Farah decided to stay behind.

“My father had been a civil servant and moved a lot, and I did not want that for our girls,” she remembers.

By this time, she had completed a master’s degree and was interested professionally in workforce development as well as good K–12 schools. She also had a sister in Minnesota. Farah found an apartment in St. Louis Park and looked for a job.

She found one as a family services coordinator with a nonprofit organization, working on a project funded by Hennepin County to address the needs of new African immigrant families and their children. One aspect of the project was to find ways to help families learn how U.S. school and child-protection systems work. Two years later she was hired as a community liaison and case manager for the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

Currently, Farah is part of a team that implements state policy and programs for low-income families so they can meet their basic needs and move to work through training and education. As one of the first Africans in the department, she has been a path breaker.

“I was kind of a phenomenon, actually,” Farah admits. “People fear what they don’t know, and if we don’t talk, we just stay in our corners and ‘don’t know what we don’t know.’ How do we come from a place of dis-ease to a place of ease so we can have a dialogue?

“Dialogue is important, communication and relationships are important,” she says. “I had to learn not to take myself as seriously.”

Farah’s first contact with the U was auditing an evaluation class from professor Jean King. At work, she had been assigned to conduct a community needs assessment.

“I wanted to learn the tools to do it right,” she says.

Her second contact was at the Brian Coyle Center in Minneapolis. Her former boss invited her to a program where the College of Education and Human Development was seeking information that would help design programs to meet the needs of new immigrants. There she met faculty members Deanne Magnusson and David Chapman, who would become her advisers.

“I talked to them after the presentation about the possibility of graduate school at the U, and they invited me to contact them when I was ready,” says Farah. “Two years later I decided to apply to the CIDE doctoral program and, as they say, the rest is history!”

Persistence and support

Farah found the cognitive interactions in the classroom stimulating because of the student body from all over the world and walks of life. Her interest focused on the expectations, roles, and processes at school and at home that support the learning of middle school-aged children. She set to work on her dissertation. She progressed slowly when life events intervened, including a serious illness in the family and a move to a new home.

“Sometimes the only time I had for school was when everyone else went to sleep,” she says with a smile. “I don’t know how I would have done it if there was not technology!—for example, with my adviser, we Skyped.”

Disaster struck on a cold March day when the Farahs’ car hit a slippery patch on a country road and her husband was critically injured. In the aftermath, Farah was certain she would have to withdraw from her program. The support of Magnusson, family members who came to help out, and her director at work allowed her to continue.

“Every time something difficult happens, it forces you to think of what’s important to you,” says Farah.

In January this year, she defended her dissertation, “Somali Parental Involvement in Education: Case Studies of Two Urban Public Schools in the United States of America.” It grew from her study of the concept of “parent invisibility” in schools and its impact on school–family relations in cross-cultural environments.

Farah’s work relates to the international educational reform movement to improve the quality of education through parents’ effective engagement in their children’s education. Policymakers are interested because of the idea that families have a right to participate in the governance and decision-making process in schools—a contrast from the system in which she grew up. She hopes to find ways to continue to contribute to school-home relations through training and decentralization of decision-making at the policy level and in academia.

In May, with her proud husband looking on, Farah walked across the stage at Northrop Auditorium in Minneapolis to officially receive her doctorate.

Learn more about the comparative and international development education program in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development.

Story by Gayla Marty | Photo by Greg Helgeson | June 2015