Building on ‘privilege’ with hard work

Photo: Phi Theta Kappa

I am not supposed to be here. At least, that’s what the numbers tell me.

I was born in a refugee camp in Kenya, but I’m here as a very privileged young man. Now, I like to think of myself as somewhat intelligent, so I can see the paradox in that statement. After all, the numbers say that a young black male — the son of an immigrant, growing up in a single-parent household — really has no business succeeding.

But I’ll let you in on a little secret: numbers don’t really speak too loudly, so I chose to not listen.

The Somali village my parents grew up in was attacked in an event my mom refers to as “the qaraax.” Literally translated, “qaraax” means “the explosion” in the Somali language. Prior to this event, there were whispers of impending violence, but nobody ever expects violence to happen to them.

The “qaraax” came out of absolutely nowhere. As my mom describes it, she heard a loud boom and then, nothing. Once her ears stopped ringing, she saw that everything was aflame, and she heard the screams of those who had been closest to the explosion.

Amidst all this, she managed to find my grandma, who immediately gave her simple yet horrifying advice: take all the family valuables, sell them and run. The rebels were coming, and my mother was young and beautiful.

A few days passed, and my mother found shelter while she awaited her chance to leave the country. One day, she recognized a disheveled young man from her town with his head buried in his hands.

Let me juxtapose these two individuals for you. My mother, a college-educated woman, was part of Somalia’s last graduating class. The handsome yet despondent young man was uneducated and near the brink of despair.

What was the difference between the two? Education. Education is the difference between despair and hope.

They agreed to travel together. She needed his protection, and he needed her plan. And that is how my mother met my father.

Editor’s note: Mo Abdullahi, a student at Renton Technical College in Washington, was recently named a 2017 All-USA Community College Academic Team member, a 2017 Coca-Cola New Century Scholar, and Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society’s 2017 Pierce Scholar. This article was adapted from a speech he gave in April to community college presidents during the 2017 American Association of Community Colleges annual convention in New Orleans.

I didn’t do a single thing to be was born to an educated woman who always knew exactly what to do. That is privilege — being born with an advantage that others simply never had.

I acknowledge and accept my privilege, and I can do so without diminishing any of my hard work. It is possible.

Beyond academics and careers

I’ve noticed the tide turning against intellectualism in this country, and it is very concerning. Quite frankly, I refute the notion that there is something wrong with being able to think critically and search for facts.

Over the past two years, I have become a trained computer programmer, engaged in collaborative action with other Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society chapter officers, and spent countless hours tutoring English to people who have recently arrived in America.

Mo Abdullahi, a student at Renton Technical College in Washington, addresses community college presidents and other education advocates at a Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society event during the AACC annual convention in April. (Photo: Phi Theta Kappa)

Now, English is not my first language. English is hard! But through these activities, I have set a foundation for continued education and engaged citizenship.

Getting educated isn’t just about turning credits into cash. It is about the quiet and unwavering self-confidence that is gained from wisdom. It is about learning how to be better at being human. It is about learning empathy.

Democracy is a beautiful and very fragile thing. Without wise, empathetic humans, it will crumble. That is what education is about.

If I were to try to immigrate to America today, I would not be allowed to. I am a Somali-American, and the Somali part of me has been banned. I think about that a lot. What if I wasn’t allowed in? Part of what drives me is my bright future, but what if that future wasn’t so illuminated?

Would I know what direction to move in if there was no light at the end of the tunnel? I am one of many refugees — I am not one in a million; I am one of millions. I am also a black man in America, but I am not the exception; I am reality.

The scholarships afforded to me are about more than just money. The memory of when I called my mother and told her that I was on the 2017 All-USA Community College Academic Team will always be a part of me.

The image of my 10-year-old brother holding all those certificates with his big brother’s name on them is something I will remember forever.

For me and my All-USA team members, Phi Theta Kappa has been the catalyst to transform ourselves from ordinary students into scholars and leaders. This experience will continue to fuel our passion for education. And with continued education, our lives will be better, and we will make the world better.

A common thread emerges in all our stories. Everyone needs a champion. I found mine on my community college campus.

Kudos to college leaders

To all the presidents and administrators of community and technical colleges, I want to reaffirm just how important your job is. Imagine if this country was run like a community or technical college. We would meet people where they are and not shame them for failing to meet some invented expectation that lacks context. We would see the potential in people and embrace the flaws that come from living a hard life. And we would remove barriers and assure people that obstacles were meant to be overcome.

Never forget that you are the leaders of so many dedicated faculty and staff members like the ones who never allowed me to say no to an opportunity. The ones who never let me listen to those numbers.

About the Author

Mo Abdullahi
is studying computer and information sciences at Renton Technical College in Washington.